The Simple Pulley Gives Us a Lift

    Lifting heavy objects into position always presents a challenge, whether it’s a mom lifting a toddler to her hip or a construction worker lifting work materials to great heights.   During my career as an engineering expert I’ve dealt with similar challenges, some of which were handled quite nicely by incorporating a simple pulley, which we introduced last time, into my design.   But sometimes, due to certain restrictions, the addition of a simple pulley into the works isn’t enough to get the job done.   We’ll take a look at one of the restrictions working against the use of a simple pulley today.

    The simple pulley is believed to have first been used by the Greeks as far back as the 9th Century BC.   Back then it would have come in handy to lift cargo aboard ships, hoist sails on masts, and lift building materials high off the ground to supply workmen during the construction of temples and other marvels of ancient architecture.   In other words, pulleys literally saved ancient workers thousands of steps when it came to lifting things off the ground.

    Let’s return to ancient times for a moment to get an understanding of the mechanics behind the workings of the simple pulley as put to use in a basic lifting application.

 The Simple Pulley Gives Us a Lift

The Simple Pulley Gives Us a Lift


    With a simple pulley, the tension force F1 applied to the rope by the pull-er is equal to the tension force F2 exerted upon the object, the pull-ee.   Once lifted off the ground, these forces are also equal to the object’s weight, W, which gravity works upon to return the lifted object to its previous position on the ground.  All these forces come to bear upon whatever’s doing the pulling.   If this pull-er happens to be a human, then the simple pulley’s effectiveness to lift things is directly proportionate to that human’s strength.   In the case of the toga’d figure above, that would be about 10 pounds.   It’s this caveat that limits the usefulness of the simple pulley when relying on human power alone, particularly when it’s employed to lift extremely heavy objects like marble pillars.   A single human isn’t up to the task.

    Next time we’ll see how ancient Greeks overcame this limitation of the simple pulley by managing to cut in half the amount of brute force required to lift heavy objects.

Copyright 2016 – Philip J. O’Keefe, PE

Engineering Expert Witness Blog



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