Imagine a beam sitting on a fulcrum. We apply one force F'(1) = 20 N on the left side at a distance of r(1) = 0.1 m from the fulcrum and another force F'(2) = 5 N on the right side at a distance of r(2) = 0.2 m. In which direction, clockwise or anti-clockwise, will the beam move?

(Before reading on, please make sure that you understand the concept of torque)

To find that out we can take a look at the corresponding torques. The torque on the left side is:

T(1) = 0.1 m · 20 N = 2 Nm

For the right side we get:

T(2) = 0.2 · 5 N = 1 Nm

So the rotational push caused by force 1 (left side) exceeds that of force 2 (right side). Hence, the beam will turn anti-clockwise. If we don’t want that to happen and instead want to achieve equilibrium, we need to increase force 2 to F'(2) = 10 N. In this case the torques would be equal and the opposite rotational pushes would cancel each other. So in general, this equation needs to be satisfied to achieve a state of equilibrium:

r(1) · F'(1) = r(2) · F'(2)

This is the law of the lever in its simplest form. Let’s see how and where we can apply it.

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*A great example for the usefulness of the law of the lever is provided by cranes. On one side, let’s set r(1) = 30 m, it lifts objects. Since we don’t want it to fall over, we stabilize the crane using a 20,000 kg concrete block at a distance of r(2) = 2 m from the axis. What is the maximum mass we can lift with this crane?*

*First we need to compute the gravitational force of the concrete block.*

*F'(2) = 20,000 kg · 9.81 m/s² = 196,200 N*

*Now we can use the law of the lever to find out what maximum force we can apply on the opposite site:*

*r(1) · F'(1) = r(2) · F'(2)*

*30 m · F'(1) = 2 m · 196,200 N*

*30 m · F'(1) = 392,400 Nm*

*Divide by 30 m:*

*F'(1) = 13,080 N*

*As long as we don’t exceed this, the torque caused by the concrete block will exceed that of the lifted object and the crane will not fall over. The maximum mass we can lift is now easy to find. We use the formula for the gravitational force one more time:*

*13,080 N = m · 9.81 m/s²*

*Divide by 9.81:*

*m ≈ 1330 kg*

*To lift even heavier objects, we need to use either a heavier concrete block or put it at a larger distance from the axis.*

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*The law of the lever shows why we can interpret a lever as a tool to amplify forces. Suppose you want use a force of F'(1) = 100 N to lift a heavy object with the gravitational pull F'(2) = 2000 N. Not possible you say? With a lever you can do this by applying the smaller force at a larger distance to the axis and the larger force at a shorter distance.*

*Suppose the heavy object sits at a distance r(2) = 0.1 m to the axis. At what what distance r(1) should we apply the 100 N to be able to lift it? We can use the law of the lever to find the minimum distance required.*

*r(1) · 100 N = 0.1 m · 2000 N*

*r(1) · 100 N = 200 Nm*

*r(1) = 2 m*

*So as long as we apply the force at a distance of over 2 m, we can lift the object. We effectively amplified the force by a factor of 20. Scientists believe that the principle of force amplification using levers was already used by the Egyptians to build the pyramids. Given a long enough lever, we could lift basically anything even with a moderate force.*

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This was an excerpt from More Great Formulas Explained.

Check out my BEST OF for more interesting physics articles.

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