Historical notes on P1 - Hook’s joint/universal joint/Cardan joint

by Daina Taimina


 The first known application of the universal joint occurred in China more than 2,000 years ago. The Chinese had invented what we call "gimbals". Gimbal was three concentric rings to be able to rotate in three perpendicular planes. Chinese used series of interlocking rings within a device that allowed a candle placed in the center to remain upright regardless of the device's position. Today, gimbals are used to keep ships' compasses level and as components in gyroscopes.


In 1545, Italian mathematician Girolamo Cardano theorized that the principle of gimbals could be used to transmit rotary motion through an angled connection. Some credit Cardano with the invention of the universal joint, but it wasn't until the next century that an actual universal joint was produced.








English scientist Robert Hooke (1635-1703) was the first to put the universal joint to work.  In 1676, he published a paper on an optical instrument that could be used to study the sun safely.  In order to track the sun across the sky, the device feature a control handle fitted with a new type of joint rather like two stirrups locked together, which allowed twisting motion in one shaft to be passed on to another, no matter how the two shafts were orientated.

 Hooke’s joint

Davison in [2] mentions that "Credit …is frequently given to Jerome Cardan, as Cardan's gimbal was mistaken for universal joint in the modern sense." But A. Ashworth in [1] says: "The first such universal joint was fitted to a carriage belonging to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1548. This piece of engineering alone would have shown its inventor (after whom it was named) to be a remarkable man; but there was a lot more to him than this. The man was Girolamo Cardano, a man in the quintessential Renaissance tradition". It is also mentioned in literature that Leonardo da Vinci had an idea of a universal joint.

For the next 240 years the idea was waiting for the likes of the young Cornell University engineering graduate, Clarence W. Spicer, to find a use. He built his own automobile ... the Spicer car... to demonstrate the operation of his universal joint. The determination to carry through his idea led to his success as a manufacturer.

 Clarence W. Spicer    

In 1903 Spicer received the patent for the universal joint while studying at Cornell University and began manufacturing his invention as Spicer Manufacturing Company in Plainfield, NJ on April 1, 1904.

The automotive and industrial world became immediately better. Before the universal joint there were troublesome chain and sprockets or chain and geared adaptations used in vehicles. Mr. Spicer is recognized as a mechanical genius...but we also should give him credit as being a top-notch salesman. He had an idea and was so convinced of its potential, that he proceeded to sell it to the then doubting giants of the automobile industry. Spicer's ingenuity to apply the universal joint was the seed that grew to bear a billion dollar a year corporation--Dana--and it's still growing 90 years later.[3]



1.      Ashworth, Alan “Cardano’s Solution”,  History Today, January, 1999.

2.      Davison, Charles St. C. B., "Gear Power Transmission", Engineering Heritage: Highlights form the History of Mechanical Engineering, Heinemann, London, 1963, vol.1, pp. 118-123.

3.      http://www.drivelinesnw.com/industry_history.html