The science of yo-yos
by Chris Woodford. Last updated: January 25, 2020.
Who'd have thought you could have so
much fun with a bit of plastic on the end of a string? If you think
nothing could be simpler than a yo-yo, it's time you tried looking
into the science behind it! How does it keep spinning so long? How
can it "sleep" (hang at the end of the string)—and what makes
it climb back up again? Why do yo-yos feel so strangely stable as
they spin? There's a lot of physics going on in your yo-yo. Let's
take a closer look!
Artwork: Jiggling yo-yos use the science of force, motion, and energy.
What makes yo-yos go up and down?
A yo-yo might look like a toy, but it's also an energy converting machine. Understanding how it constantly changes energy
from one kind into another is the key to figuring out how it works. If you're not familiar with scientific terms like
potential energy and kinetic energy, you might want to browse through our energy article before you go any further.
When you hold a yo-yo in your hand,
it has potential energy: it stores energy
because it's high above the floor. When you release it, the potential energy is
gradually converted into kinetic energy (the
energy something has because it's moving). When a yo-yo is spinning at the bottom of
its string, virtually all the potential energy it had originally has
been converted into kinetic energy. As a yo-yo climbs up and down its
string, it is constantly exchanging potential and kinetic energy—much
like a rollercoaster car.
Photos: The string is like a yo-yo's fuel tank: it supplies the energy the yo-yo needs to keep moving. Photo by Eric Harris courtesy of US Air Force and Defense Imagery.
A spinning yo-yo actually has two different kinds of kinetic energy: one kind because it's moving up
and down the string and another kind because it's spinning around.
When you release the yo-yo from your hand, it falls toward the ground
just like a stone, and it picks up speed because it's falling. But a
yo-yo is different from a stone because it has string wrapped around
its axle. As it falls, it starts to spin. That's why a yo-yo falls
much more slowly than a stone: some of the energy that should be
making it fall quickly is actually being used to make it spin around
at the same time.
Whatever it's doing, and wherever it
is on the string, a yo-yo usually has a mixture of three different
kinds of energy:
- Potential energy—because it's a certain height above the floor.
- Kinetic energy of movement—because it's moving up or down relative to the floor.
- Kinetic energy of rotation—because it's spinning around.
Artwork: A yo-yo starts off in your hand with only
potential energy. Once it's spinning and moving, rising and falling, it
has a mixture of potential energy and two kinds of kinetic energy. You
have to keep adding more energy by jerking the string.
In a perfect world, a yo-yo could
rise and fall on its string forever. But as the string spins on the
plastic axle, friction (the rubbing force
between two things that are in contact and moving past one another) uses up some of its
energy. Although you can't see it happening, the spinning
yo-yo wheels also rub against the air that surrounds them. This air
resistance also eats away at the yo-yo's energy supply. If you
don't keep giving the yo-yo more energy, by pumping the string up and
down, it slows down very quickly and grinds to a halt. Every time
you tug the string, you jerk the yo-yo so it keeps on spinning. In
effect, you are recharging its energy batteries with each tug.
Why does a spinning yo-yo feel weird in your hand?
Things that are moving like to carry
on moving. We call this phenomenon momentum (loosely
speaking, momentum means "mass in motion"; things have
momentum because they have both mass and velocity). A
truck speeding down the freeway has more momentum than a car going
the same speed because it has more mass. A person has more momentum
when they ride a bicycle than when they walk because a bicycle goes
faster (it has a higher velocity or speed).
Artwork: A spinning yo-yo behaves a bit like a gyroscope. You can find a wonderful
animated version of a spinning gyroscope on Wikimedia Commons.
Just as a yo-yo has two kinds of
kinetic energy, so it has two kinds of momentum: linear
(because it moves in a straight line, up and down on the string) and
angular momentum (because it spins around).
objects have angular momentum. And anything that's spinning around
likes to keep on spinning so its
angular momentum stays the same. If you try to make it spin a
different way, it will compensate by changing its motion somehow. If
an ice skater is spinning in a circle with her arms out and she
suddenly brings them in, she'll spin much faster than she did before.
That's because she changes the way her mass is distributed. Her body
compensates for this by changing her velocity to keep her angular
Angular momentum is why a gyroscope
behaves so strangely. A gyroscope is a heavy wheel mounted on a
framework of three axles that allow it to spin around in three
Once you set a gyroscope spinning, it will strongly resist any
attempts to make it spin another way. So if you try to tilt it, it
will tilt back the other way. Like an ice skater, it tries to keep
its angular momentum constant or, as physicists say, to conserve its angular momentum. A spinning yo-yo behaves just like a gyroscope.
That's why it feels strangely stable as it spins on the string. It
feels almost as though it has a built in stubbornness to change its
movement. That's one reason why you can do all kinds of neat tricks
How does a clutch yo-yo work?
The best yo-yos for doing tricks have what's called a centrifugal clutch.
It's an extra mechanism of weights (shown here in blue) and springs (black zigzags) built inside
the body of the yo-yo that makes it behave differently according to whether it's spinning fast or slow.
When the yo-yo spins fairly slowly, the springs clamp the weights firmly against the axle like brakes so
the yo-yo rises and falls on the string (gray line) as normal.
Make the yo-yo spin faster, however, and the weights fly out from the axle because of
centrifugal force (or, if you prefer, because the springs cannot provide enough
centripetal force to keep them in). Now there's nothing to clamp the axle so it spins freely and the
yo-yo "sleeps" at the bottom of the string. When it slows down, the weights go back in again
and the yo-yo rises and falls on the string as normal.
Read more about centrifugal and centripetal force in our article about centrifuges.
Who invented yo-yos?
Artwork: Original drawings from the yo-yo patent granted to Haven and Hettrick in 1866. The figure on the left
shows the relatively simple construction: just as in a modern yo-yo, the two outer discs have a space between them held together by a rivet (green)
around which the string wraps. Artwork from US Patent #59,745: Bandelore courtesy of US Patent and Trademark Office.
No-one knows for sure where yo-yos came from, who thought of the idea, or even why they have that unusual name,
but they're believed to be an ancient invention: on Wikipedia, you'll find a
picture of an ancient Greek vase
from around 2500 years ago featuring a boy playing with a yo-yo. It's amazing to think that this clever little toy
was amusing people in ancient times in exactly the same way that it puts a smile on our faces today.
What about modern yo-yos? The earliest patent (invention record) for a yo-yo was granted to James L. Haven and
Charles Hettrick of Cincinnati, Ohio, United States on November 20, 1866. The invention they described was "an improved
construction of the toy, commonly called a bandelore, and consists in forming the same of two disks of metal, coupled
together at their centers by means of a clutch and rivet..."
How did the "bandelore" get from ancient Greece to the modern United States? Digging a bit further, I discovered an 1868 book called All the Year Round, edited by none other than Charles Dickens, which describes the bandelore as "an ingenious toy, which derives its origin from the East. It is composed of two small discs, connected by an axle, to which a cord is attached." It's unclear from this whether the eastern "origin" Dickens refers to comes before or after the time of ancient Greece. The 1835 Progressive Dictionary of the English Language, edited by Samuel Fallows, tells us the bandelore was also called a "quiz" and was "a toy in vogue about the beginning of the [19th] century." If you have any more pieces of the yo-yo's historic jigsaw puzzle, do please get in touch and I'll update my information.
If you liked this article...
... you might like my books. My latest one is
Breathless: Why Air Pollution Matters and How it Affects You.
Find out more
On this website
On other sites
For younger readers
These aren't about yo-yos; like this article, they're general introductions to energy and simple physics, best suited for ages 9–12:
- Can You Feel the Force by Richard Hammond. DK, 2015/2007. A funky, sparky, and sometimes quite funny look at the physics of forces. A great choice for reluctant readers. (I was one of the consultants and contributors to this book.)
- Energy by Chris Woodford.
New York/London: DK, 2007: One of my own books, this is a bright and jolly introduction to energy, where it comes from, and how we harness it in everyday life.
- Force and Motion by Peter Lafferty. DK, 2000. There's a lot of science history here as well as a basic introduction to forces and motion.
- Yo-Yo: Rolling, sliding, pulling by Rhett Allain. Wired, January 27, 2010. Using more complex physics equations to understand the unusual motions of a yo-yo.
- A New Spin on an Old Toy by By Mark Anderson. IEEE Spectrum, October 30, 2009. Explores some of the new technological developments in yo-yo design.
- The Ups and Downs of Competition by John Branch. The New York Times, August 18, 2008. The Internet is credited with raising the bar at the World Yo-Yo Contest, which draws around 200 entrants from 20 different countries.
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