1777, "a projecting part of a rotating machinery used to impart motion to another part," from Dutch cam "cog of a wheel," originally "comb," from Proto-Germanic *kambaz "comb," from PIE root *gembh- "tooth, nail." It is thus a cognate of English comb (n.). This might have combined with English camber "having a slight arch;" or the whole thing could be from camber.
It converts regular rotary motion into irregular, fast-and-slow rotary or reciprocal motion. "The original method was by cogs or teeth fixed or cut at certain points in the circumference or disc of a wheel ..." [OED]. Cam-shaft attested from 1850.
updated on October 30, 2022