In our “Mechanisms” series, we’ve featured the fascinating bits and pieces that go into making our mechanical world work. From simple machines such as screws and levers, from springs to couplings, and even more complex mechanisms like zippers and solenoids, we’ve covered the gamut. But we haven’t talked about one of the very earliest mechanisms, captured from nature by our clever ancestors to do useful work like grinding grain and shaping materials into tools: grit, sand, abrasives.
Since humans first starting playing with electricity, we’ve proven ourselves pretty clever at finding ways to harness that power and turn it into motion. Electric motors of every type move the world, but they are far from the only way to put electricity into motion. When you want continuous rotation, a motor is the way to go. But for simpler on and off applications, where fine control of position is not critical, a solenoid is more like what you need. These electromagnetic devices are found everywhere and they’re next in our series on useful mechanisms.
Mechanisms: The Lever, It’s Everywhere
Levers are literally all around us. You body uses them to move, pick up a pen to sign your name and you’ll use mechanical advantage to make that ballpoint roll, and that can of soda doesn’t open without a cleverly designed lever.
I got onto this topic quite by accident. I was making an ornithopter and it was having trouble lifting its wings. For the uninitiated, ornithopters are machines which fly by flapping their wings. The problem was that the lever arm was too short. To be honest, as I worked I wasn’t even thinking in terms of levers, and only realized that there was one after I’d fine-tuned its length by trial and error. After that, the presence of a lever was embarrassingly obvious.
I can probably be excused for not seeing a lever right away because it wasn’t the type we most often experience. There are different classes of levers and it’s safe to say that most people aren’t even aware of this. Let’s take a closer look at these super useful, and sometimes hidden mechanisms known as levers.
Mechanisms: Hook And Loop Fasteners
As a species, we’ve done a pretty good job at inventing some useful devices. But as clever as we think we are, given sufficient time, natural selection will beat us at our game at almost every turn. So it makes sense that many of our best inventions are inspired by nature and the myriad ways life finds to get DNA from one generation to the next.
Hook and loop fasteners are one such design cribbed from nature, and the story behind this useful mechanism is a perfect example that a prepared mind, good observation skills, and a heck of a lot of perseverance are what it takes to bring one of Mother Nature’s designs to market.
Editor’s Note: As some predicted in the comments section, we were contacted by representatives of Velcro Companies and asked to change all mentions in this article to either VELCRO® Brand Fastener or to use the generic “Hook and Loop” term. If it seems weird that we’re calling this hook and loop, now you know why.
Mechanisms: The Spring
Most people probably don’t think about springs until one kinks up or snaps, but most of the world’s springs are pretty crucial. The ones that aren’t go by the name Slinky.
We all use and encounter dozens of different types of springs every day without realizing it. Look inside the world of springs and you’ll find hundreds of variations on the theme of bounce. The principle of the spring is simple enough that it can be extended to almost any shape and size that can be imagined and machined. Because it can take so many forms, the spring as a mechanism has thousands of applications. Look under your car, take apart a retractable pen, open up a stapler, an oven door, or a safety pin, and you’ll find a spring or two. Continue reading “Mechanisms: The Spring”
I was splitting wood one day a few years back, getting next winter’s firewood ready on my hydraulic splitter. It normally handled my ash and oak with ease, but I had a particularly gnarly piece of birch queued up, and the splitter was struggling. The 20-ton cylinder slowed as the wedge jammed in the twisted grain, the engine started to bog down, then BANG! I jumped back as something gave way and the engine revved out of control; I figured a hydraulic hose gave out. Whatever it was, I was done for the day.
I later discovered that a coupler between the engine shaft and the hydraulic pump failed dramatically. It was an easy fix once I ordered the right part, and I’ve since learned to keep extras in stock. Couplings are useful things, and they’re the next up in our series on mechanisms.
Mechanisms: Cable Ties
Zip ties, Ty-Raps, cable ties; call them what you will, but it’s hard to imagine doing without these ubiquitous and useful devices. Along with duct tape and hot glue, they’re part of the triumvirate of fasteners used to solve nasty problems quickly and cheaply. They’re next up on the list of mechanisms we find fascinating, and as it turns out, there’s more to these devices than meets the eye.