The behaviour of non-linear systems often yield unexpected phenomena which are extremely sensitive to initial conditions. The hydrodynamic journal bearing is a common machine element which is strongly nonlinear for large excursions within the clearance space. A simple model of a rigid journal, supported hydrodynamically using a short bearing theory is shown to behave chaotically when the rotating unbalance force exceeds the gravitational load. At these values of the force ratio the time history of the response is very sensitive to initial conditions and a spectral analysis demonstrates a significant broadening from the expected peak at the rotational frequency. A once per revolution sampling of the time history (Poincaré plot) revealed an apparent aperiodic pattern. An estimate of the fractal dimension using the Grasberger-Procaccia algorithm resulted in a lower bound of 2.15, a typical result for low dimensional systems with significant dissipative action. The required levels of unbalance are only an order of magnitude greater than acceptable levels for rotating machinery and thus could be achieved with in-service erosion or minor damage. The subsequent non-synchronous response could result in fatigue and potential shaft failure. © 1994 Kluwer Academic Publishers.