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What Are Pulleys and How Pulleys Work

What Are Pulleys and How Pulleys Work

Issue Time:2021-09-24

What Are Pulleys and How Pulleys Work

You've probably seen those amazing TV strongmen who can pull cars with their hair and drag trains with their teeth. But did you know science can make you strong too? If you need to lift huge weights, don't strain your back: use the power of science—and an amazing device called a pulley. Let's take a closer look at how they work!

What are pulleys?

A pulley is simply a collection of one or more wheels over which you loop a rope to make it easier to lift things.

 

Pulleys are examples of what scientists call simple machines. That doesn't mean they're packed with engines and gears; it just means they help us multiply forces. If you want to lift a really heavy weight, there's only so much force your muscles can supply, even if you are the world's strongest man. But use a simple machine such as a pulley and you can effectively multiply the force your body produces.

How pulleys work

The more wheels you have, and the more times you loop the rope around them, the more you can lift.

One wheel

If you have a single wheel and a rope, a pulley helps you reverse the direction of your lifting force. So, as in the picture below, you pull the rope down to lift the weight up. If you want to lift something that weighs 100kg, you have to pull down with a force equivalent to 100kg, which is 1000N (newtons). If you want to raise the weight 1m into the air, you have to pull the loose end of the rope a total distance of 1m at the other end.

Two wheels

Now if you add more wheels, and loop the rope around them, you can reduce the effort you need to lift the weight. Suppose you have two wheels and a rope looped around them, as in the figure below. The 100kg mass (1000 newton weight) is now effectively supported by two sections of the same rope (the two strands on the left) instead of just one (ignoring the loose end of the rope you're pulling with), and this means you can lift it by pulling with a force of just 500 newtons—half as much! That's why we say a pulley with two wheels, and the rope wrapped around it this way, gives a mechanical advantage (ME) of two.

 

Mechanical advantage is a measurement of how much a simple machine multiples a force. The bigger the mechanical advantage, the less force you need, but the greater the distance you have to use that force. The weight rises 1m, but now we have to pull the loose end of the rope twice as far (2m). How come? To make the weight rise 1m, you have to make the two sections of rope supporting it rise by 1m each. To do that, you have to pull the loose end of the rope 2m. Notice that we can also figure out the mechanical advantage by dividing the distance we have to pull the rope by the distance the weight moves.

Four wheels

Okay, what if you use four wheels held together by a long rope that loops over them, as in the picture below? You can see that the 100kg mass (1000 newton weight) is now hanging from four sections of rope (the ones on the left, ignoring the loose end of the rope you're pulling with). That means each section of rope is supporting a quarter of the total 1000 newton weight, or 250 newtons, and to raise the weight into the air, you have to pull with only a quarter of the force—also 250 newtons. To make the weight rise 1m, you have to shorten each section of the rope by 1m, so you have to pull the loose end of the rope by 4m. We say a pulley with four wheels and the rope wrapped around like this gives a mechanical advantage of four, which is twice as good as a pulley with two ropes and wheels.

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