by Chris Woodford. Last updated: July 8, 2013.
You've probably seen those amazing TV strongmen who can pull cars with their hair and drag trains with their teeth. But did you know science can make you strong too? If you need to lift huge weights, don't strain your back: use the power of science—and an amazing device called a pulley. Let's take a closer look at how they work!
Photo: A pulley mounted on a huge lifting frame to make it safer to use. Thanks to the power of pulleys, one person can lift far more than their own weight without straining any muscles. Photo by R. B. Hotard courtesy of US Marine Corps and Defense Imagery.
What are pulleys?
A pulley is simply a collection of one or more wheels over which you loop a rope to make it easier to lift things. Pulleys are examples of what scientists call simple machines. That doesn't mean they're packed with engines and gears; it just means they help us multiply forces. If you want to lift a really heavy weight, there's only so much force your muscles can supply, even if you are the world's strongest man. But use a simple machine such as a pulley and you can effectively multiply the force your body produces.
Photo: Pulleys can help you lift heavier things because several ropes or chains support the extra weight. Photo by Sheldon Rowley courtesy of US Navy and Defense Imagery.
How pulleys work
If you have a single wheel and a single rope, a pulley helps you reverse the direction of your lifting force. So, as in the picture below, you pull the rope down to lift the weight up. If you want to lift something that weighs 100kg, you have to pull down with a force equivalent to 100kg. If you want to raise the weight 1m into the air, you have to pull the rope a total distance of 1m at the other end. (Incidentally, although the kilogram is a unit of mass, not force, it's okay to talk about a force equivalent to a given mass because masses generally convert to forces in the same way. Read more about thus in our article on weights and balances.)
Artwork: How pulleys work#1: With one wheel, a pulley simply reverses the direction of the force you apply. It doesn't alter the force in any way.
Now if you add more ropes and wheels, you can reduce the effort you need to lift the weight. Suppose you have two wheels and two ropes, arranged as in the figure below. The 100kg weight is now supported by two ropes instead of one (ignoring the loose end of the rope you're pulling with), so you can lift it by pulling with a force of just 50kg—half as much! That's why we say a pulley with two wheels and ropes gives a mechanical advantage (ME) of two. Mechanical advantage is a measurement of how much a simple machine multiples a force. The bigger the mechanical advantage, the less force you need, but the greater the distance you have to use that force. The weight rises 1m, but now we have to pull the rope twice as far (2m). How come? To make the weight rise 1m, you have to make the two ropes supporting it rise up by 1m each. To do that, you have to pull the end of the rope 2m. Notice that we can also figure out the mechanical advantage by dividing the distance we have to pull the rope by the distance the weight moves.
Artwork: How pulleys work#2: With two wheels and two ropes, a pulley halves the lifting force you need. It's like lifting the weight with two ropes instead of one. But you now have to pull the end of the rope twice as far to lift the weight the same distance.
Okay, what if you use four wheels held together by a long rope that loops over them, as in the picture below? You can see that the 100kg weight is now supported by four ropes on the left (ignoring the end of the rope you're pulling with). That means each rope is supporting a quarter of the total 100kg weight, or 25kg, and to raise the weight into the air, you have to pull with only a quarter of the force—also 25kg. To make the weight rise 1m, you have to shorten each rope by 1m, so you have to pull the end of the rope by 4m. We say a pulley with four wheels and ropes gives a mechanical advantage of four, which is twice as good as a pulley with two ropes and wheels.
Artwork: How pulleys work#3: With four wheels and four ropes, a pulley cuts the lifting force you need to one quarter. But you have to pull the end of the rope four times as far.