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The Falkirk Wheel

Article #128 • Written by Alan Bellows

Near Falkirk in Scotland, the Forth & Clyde Canal meets with the Union Canal, however at their meeting point the two differ in height by approximately 115 feet. Before the 1930s, travel between these canals was provided by a series of eleven conventional locks, but they became disused and were filled in about seventy-five years ago. In more recent history, the United Kingdom's Millennium Commission began an effort to restore the canals of central Scotland in order to reconnect the east and west coasts of the landmass. As part of that effort, a brilliant, one-of-a-kind contraption was engineered which uses gravity and Archimedes' principle to transfer boats between the two canals using very little electricity. It's called the Falkirk Wheel.

The Wheel is essentially two huge, balanced water tanks suspended on arms which rotate around a central axis like a Ferris wheel. Each tank can support up to four twenty-meter-long boats at one time. Boats move into the tanks through the lock gates, which displaces a mass of water from each tank equal to the weight of the vessels. The tanks are thus always equalized in weight, allowing the pull of gravity on the descending tank to do most of the work elevating the rising tank.

This balance allows the wheel to consume very little electricity per turn despite the enormous weight involved. It uses a mere 1.5 kilowatt-hours-- or roughly the equivalent power needed to boil eight kettles of water-- each time if hefts a 600 metric ton load. And it does this in under four minutes per turn.

Due to flooding caused by vandals there was a month's delay before going into operation, but on 24 May 2002 the Falkirk Wheel officially opened as part of Queen Elizabeth's Golden Jubilee celebrations. The Wheel's design is truly revolutionary, as it is the only rotating boat lift in the world. Its beautiful form-- reminiscent of a Celtic double-headed ax-- and its graceful movement have made it a bit of a tourist destination, with a visitor's center, a café, and landscaped grounds nestled in the natural amphitheater.

Article written by Alan Bellows, published on 01 March 2006. Alan is the founder/designer/head writer/managing editor of Damn Interesting.

Article design by Alan Bellows. Spotted on Wanderings.net.
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26 Comments
Secret Ninja
Posted 01 March 2006 at 09:09 pm

Bravo, whoever designed this


lord of pastries
Posted 01 March 2006 at 09:38 pm

quite so, mr. ninja. I think the design structure of the quoxle and the structure of the combination and use of the quite beautiful jeloashes makes this bridge really come alive. it's so lovely and beautiful


Phill
Posted 01 March 2006 at 09:40 pm

but they became disused and were filled in about seventy-five years ago.

Heads up, I think their is a grammatical error in there; not sure.

Damn Interesting Indeed!


MisanthroJoe
Posted 01 March 2006 at 11:30 pm

Phill said: "Heads up, I think their is a grammatical error in there; not sure.


Damn Interesting Indeed!"

Heads, up, I think "there" is a grammatical error in there; not sure.


Arcangel
Posted 02 March 2006 at 12:20 am

Engineering, gotta love it.


PresMatt
Posted 02 March 2006 at 01:17 am

damn interesting... wish it would have had a few more pictures of it in action. still, great ready. i give it an 8.5.


Marius
Posted 02 March 2006 at 04:15 am

Too cool, but yes, it would be great if there was some actual video of it in action instead of just an animation. Now I want to go to Scotland even more!


norton
Posted 02 March 2006 at 07:19 am

Absolutely, unequivocably the coolest thing I've seen since whenever - basic physics and great ingenuity at its best!


skwigul
Posted 02 March 2006 at 01:25 pm

There's some actual video (and more pictures) at http://www.peter.com.au/photos/day/2002-09-03-2Falkirk-Wheel.html but it's in the form of 20-second clips at actual speed. Something between these and the very rough animated gif I've seen elsewhere would be nice. Very cool.


cocoabongo
Posted 02 March 2006 at 02:34 pm

I'm not quite sure I would trust a device this horribly designed. I would have prefered the old system compared to this completely dangerous device. Like the old saying goes "Never trust floating water." Back in my country the creater of this contraption would have been publicly shamed.


Gaffer
Posted 02 March 2006 at 03:21 pm

Horribly designed? That is a modern engineering marvel.

Great article.


Pascal Leduc
Posted 02 March 2006 at 04:44 pm

Locks arent that great a design either, the failiure of a door will (if thers a water height difference) propell a giant cargo ship into whatever is unfortunate enough to be in the neighbor lock often sinking a few boats in the process. In which case you have to pull the boat out before normal operations can return.

I dont see this concept being applied in many places because i doubt we can build them big enough for cargo ships plus the drop needs to be prety high and and fast. The St-Laurent drops about as much as Fallkirk but over a distance about as greath as the width of France.

Kick-ass idea though


alipardiwala
Posted 03 March 2006 at 09:22 am

I've seen this thing in action... It is something.


Bucky
Posted 03 March 2006 at 03:33 pm

Damn damn interesting. That is a beautiful piece of machinery. Very cool.


bryon
Posted 03 March 2006 at 06:26 pm

Here's another type of lock. This is in Peterbourgh, Ontario and utilizes hydralic rams to move the chambers 65ft.

http://collections.ic.gc.ca/waterway/rg_eng_i/hyd.htm


AKALucifer
Posted 04 March 2006 at 08:53 am

What is the coolest thing you can do with the electricity requirement of eight kettles? There's a thread in that somewhere.


aurifex
Posted 04 March 2006 at 05:47 pm

Amazing design. A totally unique invention. Bravo to the genius that came up with it.


AKALucifer
Posted 05 March 2006 at 06:39 am

I like the way these kind of problems are presented. It always goes something like.
"But there was a problem the canal was 115 feet too high"
Like they hadn't even of thought about it, and then just at they were about to knock throught to the sea someone said in the knick of time "Wait a minute, this isn't going to work."


solitas
Posted 05 March 2006 at 11:43 am

Marius said: "Too cool, but yes, it would be great if there was some actual video of it in action instead of just an animation."

Too right - I also wish they'd have a time-lapse movie of the thing in action.


davida
Posted 09 March 2006 at 12:17 pm

I'm in awe. I wonder if there are organizations out there that support engineers who believe in doing it right....where there is no compromise. It is too bad that the best paying jobs are with corporate america companies. Does anyone know of organizations that support engineers who want to make a difference?


Pascal Leduc
Posted 09 March 2006 at 07:06 pm

As an engineer (ok junior engineer), I can tell you that we do it ourselves.

EWB (Engineers without borders) http://www.ewb.ca/content/en/index2.shtml serves to facilitate engineers working and building projects in impoverished nations and designing projects for the betterment of man.

Remember that as engineers, our responsibilities lie towards the people and not our bosses, engineers, like other proffesional orders have to right to refuse alterations to their design and can even refuse to work if the project as a whole is flawed, in such cases that the employer would fire him it would be considered an illegal firing, and the employer would get sued (plus whatever unethical buisness practice would get spread over the news).

Enginering is one of the most protected jobs in the world because bowing to managerial pressure can cause the death of hundreds of people.


mrdarklight
Posted 27 April 2006 at 03:34 pm

I love the fact that the engineers and designers decided to make it visually appealing, instead of just a big mechanical contraption, the way it probably would have been done here in the USA. For just a little bit more money, they got something that you actually like to look at.

Yay Scotland! It's true, then... "If it's not Scottish, it's CRAP!"


mrdarklight
Posted 27 April 2006 at 03:42 pm

bryon said: "Here's another type of lock. This is in Peterbourgh, Ontario and utilizes hydralic rams to move the chambers 65ft.


http://collections.ic.gc.ca/waterway/rg_eng_i/hyd.htm"

Ha! Hydraulic rams! Lame! A typical brutish Canadian response to the problem...


eagleeye
Posted 19 June 2006 at 06:05 am

Photos and presentation video
here

Home video footage here


jaegersing
Posted 19 October 2008 at 01:46 am

Marius said: "Too cool, but yes, it would be great if there was some actual video of it in action instead of just an animation. Now I want to go to Scotland even more!"

Sorry for the long delay in posting this. Here's some video of the Wheel I shot in 2005, but only got around to editing recently. I live in Singapore so haven't seen the Wheel since then.

http://vimeo.com/1998608
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HmOZwB20rOM&fmt=18


sweeper
Posted 01 December 2008 at 09:47 am

"Back in my country the creater of this contraption would have been publicly shamed"

Cocoabongo, not sure where your country is, but in my country solving an engineering problem in such an efficient and beautiful way, creating a popular tourist attraction in the process, is considered a good thing.


END OF COMMENTS
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