Pulleys and mechanical advantage

Pulleys and mechanical advantage

Pulleys and mechanical advantage


“Is it possible to lift an object with a force that’s less than it’s weight?”


If you ever had to design a system focused on lifting objects, you probably bemoan the fact that if you want to lift a heavy object, you have to use a force that is greater or equal to it’s weight.

Or do you have to?

What if there was some way if we could manipulate the laws of physics, so we could lift an object with a force that is less than it’s weight? Well, let’s think about how we could do this using mechanical advantage.

Let us start with a very simple machine called a pulley. More specifically, we will be starting with a single, fixed pulley. A fixed pulley is a dimply a disk hinged onto an axis in which it is free to revolve around but may not move transitionally. If we were to take a rope and move throw it over the circumference of a pulley, it would reverse the direction of the rope, so we could lift an object while using a downward force instead of an upward force. We still have to use the same force as the weight, but it allows us to change directions.

Now let’s go a step further. What if we were to take that same rope, and make it go under a new pulley, this time a moveable pulley, attach the end of the rope to a ceiling like structure above the pulley, and attach the weight to the moveable pulley. Now the rope will be supporting the pulley on both sides of the object, it can effectively double it’s force value! This means we can now use a force value that is less than the weight of our object to lift it up! You can even create more complex pulley systems to create a greater mechanical advantage. However, there is one major downside to using this setup. Since energy must be conserved, and you are using a smaller force, you must increase the distance you pull your object proportionally to the strength of the force you are using. For example, if you have use a force that is half of the weight, then you will have to pull the rope twice as far, three times as far for a force a third of the weight, and so on. In addition, when we perform these calculations, we assume a massless pulley with no moment of inertia or friction, so there are bound to be some inefficiencies that will require us to use even greater distances

All in all, pulley systems are a testaments of human ingenuity, and are a classical representation of simple yet effective engineering.  

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