Science Damp

27th April 2001 at 01:00
(Photograph) - From whirring motors to electric hand tools, modern life skates on spinning gear wheels. Using the basic geometry of the circle, we can accelerate or lose power, lift heavy weights and pump liquids. Gears turn the wheels of modern transport to suit our desire for speed, but also control electric screwdrivers, pencil-sharpeners, video-recorders.

Shortly after the Sumerians invented the wheel (perhaps 6,000 years ago), engineers worked out how to multiply the brute force of men or beasts by rotating smaller wheels against bigger ones. Wooden gear wheels with pegs for cgs served for centuries, first with levers and pulleys to lift heavy materials in building, then for tensioning catapults and controlling anchor hoists.

Better metalworking techniques in the 18th century allowed a vast increase in metal gearing, used in the tiniest watches and in huge steam locomotives. Metal-toothed wheels could move faster than the old wooden peg system, and inaccuracies in the relationships between wheel ratios could be offset by matching the number of teeth in a wheel.

For more on gears try www.howstuffworks.comor Victoria Neumark

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