by Chris Woodford. Last updated: April 21, 2015.
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 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 loose end of 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 other way.
Now if you add more wheels, and loop the rope around them, you can reduce the effort you need to lift the weight. Suppose you have two wheels and a rope looped around them, as in the figure below. The 100kg weight is now effectively supported by two sections of the same rope (the two strands on the left) instead of just one (ignoring the loose end of the rope you're pulling with), and this means 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 the rope wrapped around it this way, 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 loose end of the rope twice as far (2m). How come? To make the weight rise 1m, you have to make the two sections of rope supporting it rise by 1m each. To do that, you have to pull the loose 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, it's as though the weight is hanging from two ropes (the two strands of the same rope on the left), and 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 hanging from four sections of rope (the ones on the left, ignoring the loose end of the rope you're pulling with). That means each section of 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 section of the rope by 1m, so you have to pull the loose end of the rope by 4m. We say a pulley with four wheels and the rope wrapped around like this 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 the rope working in four sections, 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.
How a pulley is like a lever
You can probably see that a pulley magnifies force in a similar way to a seesaw, which is a kind of lever. If you want to lift someone four times bigger than you on a seesaw, you need to sit four times further away from the balancing point (fulcrum) than they are. If you move your end of the lever down by 4cm, their end of the seesaw moves up only 1cm. As they rise up, they gain a certain amount of potential energy equal to their weight multiplied by the distance they move. You lose exactly the same amount of energy—equal to your weight (four times smaller) times the distance you move (four times larger). You can shift their much bigger weight because you move your end of the seesaw over a much bigger distance: the leverage of the seesaw makes it possible to produce more force by working over a bigger distance.
The same thing is happening with a pulley, except that you're pulling on a rope instead of moving the end of a seesaw. To lift something four times heavier, you can use exactly the same force but only if you pull the rope four times further. If you look at what's happening on both sides of a pulley, and multiply the force by the distance moved, you'll find it's the same. On your side, you use a small force over a large distance. On the other side, there's a much bigger weight but it's moving a smaller distance.
Artwork: How a pulley works like a lever: Just like with a lever, a pulley can "magically" create more force—but only if you use that force over a longer distance. Why is that? Read on below!