Beam, Fulcrum, Torque, Law of the Lever and Mechanical Advantage

Posted by PITHOCRATES - May 1st, 2013

Technology 101

A Lever is a Rigid Beam on a Fulcrum

Archimedes said, “Give me a place to stand, and I shall move the Earth with it.”  At least we think he did.  Archimedes of Syracuse was a Greek genius.  Mathematician.  Physicist.  Engineer.  Inventor.  And astronomer.  One of many of the ancient Greeks who advanced modern civilization.  By using math and science.  He did a lot.  And explained why things worked the way they did using math.  Like the Law of the Lever.

In the days before the twist-off bottle cap we used bottle openers.  Because try as we might we could not pry a bottle cap off with our hands.  Most grown men just didn’t have the strength to do that.  But a child could open a bottle if that child used a bottle opener.  For that bottle opener is a lever.  Giving the child leverage.  The ability to use a little bit of force to do a lot of work.

A lever is a rigid beam on a fulcrum.  Like a seesaw.  A common playground fixture.  If two kids of equal weight are on either end of the seesaw and the fulcrum is in the center these kids can effortless push up and down.  But if a grown adult sits on one end and a child is on the other the weight of the adult will drop his side of the seesaw down.  Leaving the child up in the air on the other side.

As the Lever increases in Length the more it will Amplify the Input Force we Apply

Now that’s no fun.  Having the seesaw permanently tipped in one direction.  However, even two people of different weights can enjoy playing on the seesaw.  All they have to do is move the fulcrum towards the heavier person until the seesaw balances.  So that there is a short length of seesaw between the fulcrum and the heavy person.  And longer length of seesaw between the fulcrum and the lighter person.  This creates the same amount of torque on both side of the fulcrum.

Torque is the turning force created by a force acting about a fulcrum.  The force in this case is the weight of the people on the seesaw.  Which we calculate by multiplying their mass by the force of gravity.  With the force of gravity being constant the greater the mass the greater the weight.  This weight pressing down on the beam creates torque.   And the further away from the fulcrum the greater the turning force.  Such that a lighter weight at a greater distance from the fulcrum can balance a greater weight at a shorter distance from the fulcrum.  Allowing a child to play on a seesaw with someone of far greater mass.  Because the lever amplified the smaller force of the child.  Allowing the child to move a heavier weight.  To illustrate this consider the following table.


This is just a visual aid.  The numbers don’t represent anything.  It just shows a relationship between force and the length of the lever.  In this example we need 1000 units of force to move something.  If we use a lever that is 10 units from the fulcrum we need to apply 100 units of force.  If we have a lever that is 40 units from the fulcrum we only need to apply 25 units of force.  If we have a lever that is 80 units from the fulcrum we only need to apply 12.5 units of force.  As the lever increases in length the more it will amplify the input force we apply.  Which is why a child can open a bottle with a bottle opener.

A Wheelbarrel combines the Lever with the Wheel and Axle

A lever gives us mechanical advantage.  The amplification of a small input force into a larger output force.  Such as a hand-held bottle opener.  But what about the kind that used to be fastened to pop machines?  When you bought a glass bottle of pop out of a vending machine?  The fulcrum is the fixed bottle opener.  And the lever is the bottle.  A can opener was often on the other end of a bottle opener.  Instead of a grip to latch onto a bottle cap this end had a triangular knife.  When we lifted up on the lever it pressed down and pierced a hole in a can.

A wheelbarrel allows us to move heavy loads.  This device combines two simple machines.  A wheel and axle.  And a lever.  The wheel and axle is the fulcrum.  The lever runs from the fulcrum to the handles of the wheelbarrel.  We place the load on the lever just before the axle.  When we lift the far end of the lever we can tilt up the load and balance it over the axle.  The lever amplifies the force we apply.  And the wheel and axle reduce the friction between this load and the ground.  Allowing us to move a heavy load with little effort.

Today’s pop bottles have screw-top caps.  Some people still use a lever to help open them, though.  A pair of pliers.  We use the pliers because we don’t have the strength to grip the cap tight enough to twist it open.  The pliers are actually two levers connected together at the fulcrum.  The pliers amplify our hand strand-strength to get a very secure grip on the bottle cap.  While our hands compress the two levers together getting a firm grip on the cap we can then use our arm to apply a force on the handles of the pliers.  Providing a torque to turn the bottle cap.  Very simple machines that make everyday life easier.  Thanks to the knowledge Archimedes handed down to us.


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