Coulomb’s Frictional Force

    Humans have been battling the force of friction since the first cave man built the wheel.   Chances are his primitive tools produced a pretty crude wheel that first go-around and the wheel’s surfaces were anything but smooth, making its usefulness less than optimal.   As an engineering expert, I encounter these same dynamics when designing modern devices.   What held true for the cave man holds true for modern man, friction is often a counterproductive force which design engineers must work to minimize.   Today we’ll learn about frictional force and see how it impacts our example broken coffee mug’s scattering pieces, and we’ll introduce the man behind friction’s discovery, Charles-Augustin de Coulomb.

Coulomb's Work on Friction

Charles-Augustin de Coulomb


    Last time we learned that the work required to shatter our mug was transformed into the kinetic energy which propelled its broken pieces across a rough concrete floor.   The broken pieces’ energetic transformation will continue as the propelling force of kinetic energy held within them is transmuted back into the work that will bring each one to an eventual stop a distance from the point of impact.   This last source of work is due to the force of friction.

    In 1785 Charles-Augustin de Coulomb, a French physicist, discovered that friction results when two surfaces make contact with one another, and that friction is of two types, static or dynamic.   Although Leonardo Da Vinci had studied friction hundreds of years before him, it is Coulomb who is attributed with doing the ground work that later enabled scientists to derive the formula to calculate the effects of friction.   Our example scenario illustrates dynamic friction, that is to say, the friction is caused by one of the surfaces being in motion, namely the mug’s ceramic pieces which skid across a stationary concrete floor.

    While in motion, each of the mug’s broken pieces has its own unique velocity and mass and therefore a unique amount of kinetic energy.   The weight of each piece acts as a vertical force pushing the piece down “into” the floor, this due to the influence of Earth’s gravitational pull, that is, the force of gravity.

    Friction is created by a combination of factors, including the ceramic pieces’ weights and the surface roughness of both the pieces themselves and the concrete floor they skid across.   At first glance the floor and ceramic mug’s surfaces may appear slippery smooth, but when viewed under magnification it’s a whole different story.

    Next time we’ll examine the situation under magnification and we’ll introduce the formula used to calculate friction along with a rather odd sounding variable, mu.

Copyright 2016 – Philip J. O’Keefe, PE

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