Day 768: Archimedes Spins The Wheel

originally published February 6, 2014

There are days when I sit at my desk, look at what I do (my tedious day job, not this particular knuckle-scrunchingly thrilling task) and the weight of my uninspiring career seems to drag down my insides like a kidney stone the size of a tennis shoe. I considered myself to be wildly innovative the day I rubber-banded two pens together so I could reach a third pen that had fallen on the floor, meaning  I wouldn’t have to scoot over to pick it up. I even had a little paperclip on the end so it would lift up a bit and I wouldn’t have to touch the carpet where I regularly spill root beer and pastrami grease. 

I felt like frigging MacGyver. 

Thankfully, some people are afforded the opportunity to think bigger, and devise clever solutions for problems that get measured in tonnage. When the southern tip of South America proved to be too much of a detour, they figured out how to blast a shortcut through Panama. When too many hardworking souls lost their teeth from trying to open a beer bottle in the manliest way they could think of, they invented the twist-off so we wouldn’t have to. And when a pair of waterways were no longer functioning as conduits for commerce and shipping, they came up with the Falkirk Wheel. 

Before our planet was blanketed in a lattice of asphalt and concrete, we relied on waterways to get our stuff (and ourselves) to its destination. Where the Forth and Clyde Canal and the Union Canal meet in Scotland, a bit of ingenuity – even greater than that of my Pen Reachenator (patent pending) – was required. The Union Canal, which was completed in 1822, is located on land that sits about 110 feet above the surface of the Forth and Clyde. Engineers back then were already on top of their game; they devised a series of eleven locks to connect the two. 

A ‘lock’ in this sense is a staircase for boats. Each ‘step’ is a chamber in which the water level could be raised or lowered, and although it was a tedious process, a ship could travel from one canal to the other over the course of about a day, one step at a time. It wasn’t ideal, but it worked. But when the canals became less necessary due to increased ground transport, the lock system fell into disrepair. By 1933 it was yanked completely. And as paved highways stretched their sinewy practicality across the country, the canals themselves teetered on the brink of obsolescence. The Forth and Clyde was shut completely in 1962. 

Even the Union Canal was inching toward oblivion, with part of it spewing into culverts while a homestead was built above. Then along came the British Waterways Board, a plucky band of Brits who wanted to see a revitalization of the canal systems in England, Scotland and Wales. The Forth and Clyde was eventually reopened to travel, and while bridges were built to keep the boats chugging along, there was no remnants of the original lock system to connect it with the Union.  

Then the B.W.B. came up with a brilliant idea: build something that is not only effective but astoundingly weird enough to lure tourists, gawkers and Discovery Channel film crews to check it out. The Lotteries Act of 1993 gave birth to the Millennium Commission, which aimed to build a bevy of functional eye candy around the UK so that their little corner of the world could march proudly into the 21st century looking all futurish and funky. The first design proposed for the canal junction was a big Ferris Wheel-looking thing. 

The four-gondola wheel would have served the purpose brilliantly, but it wasn’t what the Millennium Commission was looking for. It lacked punch, pizzazz, a look that says, “Screw you and your flying car, George Jetson. We’ve got this thing.” 

Then one day Tony Kettle, one of the snazziest minds with the architecture firm RMJM, was playing with his daughter’s Lego. I understand the temptation; were it socially acceptable I would have long ago built a massive Lego fortress around my cubicle. In fact, I think I’ll check my union handbook – maybe I can get away with it. 

Anyway, Tony’s dalliance with his kid’s Danish doohickeys had a practical purpose. It helped him design the answer to the canal conundrum: the world’s first rotating boat lift, based on the Archimedes Principle that states that the upward buoyant force exerted upon a boat immersed in water will be equal to the weight of the fluid that the boat displaces. In layman’s terms, that means that one arm can raise or lower a boat while the opposing arm balances things out with water. In even laymanner layman’s terms… science. 

The physical inspiration for the Falkirk Wheel is either a Celtic axe, a ship’s propeller or the ribcage of a whale, depending on which portion of this sentence you wish to believe. The end result is part modernist sculpture, part towering countryside incongruence (the thing is over 110 feet tall) and part liquid intersection. You can check out an accelerated video of the thing in action here – it takes roughly five minutes for a half rotation to carry a boat up or down, but this video trims the process to about a minute. Still, five minutes beats an entire day through eleven locks. 

The Wheel’s ceremonial ribbon was snipped on May 24, 2002 as part of Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee party. It was meant to be opened earlier, but a gaggle of vandals (and you’ve always got to watch out for canal vandals) had flooded the engine room and mucked up a bunch of the electrical and hydraulic equipment. But in nearly twelve years of operation, there have been no similar attacks – the people in Scotland just love this thing. 

And why shouldn’t they? It only cost £17.5 million to build, which actually seems like a bargain for something so massive. Each gondola holds an Olympic swimming pool’s worth of water – about 500,000 litres. And it only requires about 1.5 KW of energy to make a rotation, which is roughly the same amount one would use to boil eight household kettles. This thing is as environmentally conscious as it is aesthetically mind-thwacking. 

Alright, my little version of innovation is a smidgen less impressive than this. I look at a structure like the Falkirk Wheel, so immense in scope yet so rooted in simple logic, and I’m truly humbled. We can do this. We humans can stare the laws of physics in the eye and see everything beyond its quizzical cornea. Hooray for us. 

I’m going to do my part and bring my kids’ Lego to work tomorrow. Genius has to start somewhere. 

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