AskDefine | Define pendulum

Dictionary Definition

pendulum n : an apparatus consisting of an object mounted so that it swings freely under the influence of gravity

User Contributed Dictionary



Neuter of pendulus, "hanging".


  1. A body suspended from a fixed support so that it swings freely back and forth under the influence of gravity, commonly used to regulate various devices such as clocks.


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Extensive Definition

A pendulum is a mass that is attached to a pivot, from which it can swing freely. This object is subject to a restoring force due to gravity that will accelerate it toward an equilibrium position. When the pendulum is displaced from its place of rest, the restoring force will cause the pendulum to oscillate about the equilibrium position.
A basic example is the simple gravity pendulum or bob pendulum. This is a mass (or bob) on the end of a massless string, which, when initially displaced, will swing back and forth under the influence of gravity over its central (lowest) point.
The regular motion of the pendulum can be used for time keeping, and pendulums are used to regulate pendulum clocks.


As recorded in the 4th century Chinese Book of Taha hasan, one of the earliest uses of the pendulum was in the seismometer device of the Han Dynasty (202 BC - 220 AD) scientist and inventor Zhang Heng (78-139). Its function was to sway and activate a series of levers after being disturbed by the tremor of an earthquake far away. After this was triggered, a small ball would fall out of the urn-shaped device into a metal toad's mouth below, signifying the cardinal direction of where the earthquake was located (and where government aid and assistance should be swiftly sent).
Among his scientific studies, Galileo Galilei performed a number of observations of all the properties of pendulums. His interest in the pendulum may have been sparked by looking at the swinging motion of a chandelier in the Pisa cathedral. He began serious studies of the pendulum around 1602. Galileo noticed that period of the pendulum is independent of the bob mass or the amplitude of the swing. He also found a direct relationship between the square of the period and the length of the arm. The isochronism of the pendulum suggested a practical application for use as a metronome to aid musical students, and possibly for use in a clock.
Perhaps based upon the ideas of Galileo, in 1656 the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens patented a mechanical clock that employed a pendulum to regulate the movement. This approach proved much more accurate than previous time pieces, such as the hourglass. Following an illness, in 1665 Huygens made a curious observation about pendulum clocks. Two such clocks had been placed on his fireplace mantel, and he noted that they had acquired an opposing motion. That is, they were beating in unison but in the opposite direction—an anti-phase motion. Regardless of how the two clocks were adjusted, he found that they would eventually return to this state, thus making the first recorded observation of a coupled oscillator.
During his Académie des Sciences expedition to Cayenne, French Guiana in 1671, Jean Richer demonstrated that the periodicity of a pendulum was slower at Cayenne than at Paris. From this he deduced that the force of gravity was lower at Cayenne. Huygens reasoned that the centripetal force of the Earth's rotation modified the weight of the pendulum bob based on the latitude of the observer.
In his 1673 opus Horologium Oscillatorium sive de motu pendulorum, Christiaan Huygens published his theory of the pendulum. He demonstrated that for an object to descend a curve under gravity in the same time interval, regardless of the starting point, it must follow a cycloid (rather than the circular arc of a pendulum). This confirmed the earlier observation by Marin Mersenne that the period of a pendulum does vary with amplitude, and that Galileo's observation was accurate only for small swings in the neighborhood of the center line.
The English scientist Robert Hooke devised the conical pendulum, consisting of a pendulum that is free to swing in both directions. By analyzing the circular movements of the pendulum bob, he used it to analyze the orbital motions of the planets. Hooke would suggest to Isaac Newton in 1679 that the components of orbital motion consisted of inertial motion along a tangent direction plus an attractive motion in the radial direction. Isaac Newton was able to translate this idea into a mathematical form that described the movements of the planets with a central force that obeyed an inverse square lawNewton's law of universal gravitation. Robert Hooke was also responsible for suggesting (as early as 1666) that the pendulum could be used to measure the force of gravity.
In 1851, Jean-Bernard-Leon Foucault suspended a pendulum (later named the Foucault pendulum) from the dome of the Panthéon in Paris. It was the third Foucault pendulum he constructed, the first one was constructed in his basement and the second one was a demonstration model with a length of 11 meters. The mass of the pendulum in Pantheon was 28 kg and the length of the arm was 67 m. The Foucault pendulum was a worldwide sensation: it was the first demonstration of the Earth's rotation with a purely indoors experiment. Once the Paris pendulum was set in motion the plane of motion was observed to precess about 270° clockwise per day. A pendulum located at either of the poles will precess 360° per day relative to the ground it is suspended above. There is a mathematical relation between the latitude where a Foucault pendulum is deployed and its rate of precession; the period of the precession is inversely proportional to the sine of the latitude.
For 270 years, from their invention until quartz crystal oscillators superseded them in the 1920s, pendulums were the world's most accurate timekeeping technology. The most accurate pendulum clocks, called astronomical regulators, were installed in astronomical observatories, and served as standards to set all other clocks. The National Institute of Standards and Technology based the U.S. national time standard on the Riefler clock made by the German firm Clemens Riefler, from 1904 until 1929. This pendulum clock maintained an accuracy of a few hundredths of a second per day. It was briefly replaced by the double-pendulum W. H. Shortt clock, before the NIST switched to quartz clocks in the 1930s.

Basic principles

Simple pendulum

If and only if the pendulum swings through a small angle (in the range where the function sin(θ) can be approximated as θ) the motion may be approximated as simple harmonic motion. The period of a simple pendulum is significantly affected only by its length and the acceleration of gravity. The period of motion is independent of the mass of the bob or the angle at which the arm hangs at the moment of release. The period of the pendulum is the time taken for one complete swing (left to right and back again) of the pendulum. The formula for the period, T, is
T \approx 2\pi \sqrt\frac\,
where \ell is the length of the pendulum measured from the pivot point to the bob's center of gravity and g is the local gravitational acceleration.
For larger amplitudes, the velocity of the pendulum can be derived for any point in its arc by observing that the total energy of the system is conserved. (Although, in a practical sense, the energy can slowly decline due to friction at the hinge and atmospheric drag.) Thus the sum of the potential energy of bob at some height above the equilibrium position, plus the kinetic energy of the moving bob at that point, is equal to the total energy. However, the total energy is also equal to maximum potential energy when the bob is stationary at its peak height (at angle θmax). By this means it is possible to compute the velocity of the bob at each point along its arc, which in turn can be used to derive an exact period. The resulting period is given by an infinite series:
T = 2\pi \sqrt \left ( 1 + \frac \cdot \sin^2 \frac + \frac \cdot \sin^4 \frac + \cdots \right ).

Double pendulum

A double pendulum consists of one pendulum attached to the free end of another pendulum. The behaviour of this system is significantly more complicated than that of a single simple or physical pendulum. For small angles of displacement this system is approximately linear and can be modelled by the theory of normal modes. As the angles increase, however, the double pendulum can exhibit chaotic motion that is sensitive to the initial conditions.
A special case of the compound double pendulum, known as Rott's Pendulum, is that where the pivots of the two pendulums are horizontal when the system is in static equilibrium, and the periods of the pendulums are a factor of two apart. In this case, the coupling between the pendulums is to first order non-linear which — for small angles — leads to periodic behaviour with a period much larger than that of either pendulum.

Use for measurement

The most widespread application is for timekeeping. A pendulum whose time period is 2 seconds is called the seconds pendulum since most clock escapements move the seconds hands on each swing. Clocks that keep time with the use of pendulums lose accuracy due to friction. Pendulums are also widely used as metronomes for pianists.
The presence of g as a variable in the periodicity equation for a pendulum means that the frequency is different at various locations on Earth. So, for example, when an accurate pendulum clock in Glasgow, Scotland, (g = 9.815 63 m/s2) is transported to Cairo, Egypt, (g = 9.793 17 m/s2) the pendulum must be shortened by 0.23% to compensate. The pendulum can therefore be used in gravimetry to measure the local gravity at any point on the surface of the Earth. Note that g = 9.8 m/s² is a safe standard for acceleration due to gravity if locational accuracy is not a concern.
A pendulum in which the rod is not vertical but almost horizontal was used in early seismometers for measuring earth tremors. The bob of the pendulum does not move when its mounting does and the difference in the movements is recorded on a drum chart.


Pendulums in air are affected by atmospheric and mechanical drag. These effects can be compensated for if they are known and constant. Atmospheric drag is affected by the density of air, which is in turn affected by its moisture content, temperature, and barometric pressure. Precise clocks used for the timing of astronomic observations were improved by operating the pendulum in a partially evacuated and temperature controlled chamber. Since the drag is proportional to the square of the velocity, a long pendulum or a pendulum with a high rotational moment of inertia about its pivot, which both produce slow oscillation, will be less affected by atmospheric drag than is a faster pendulum.
Simple pendulums in everyday clocks are affected by the ambient temperature, which thermal expansion of the material holding the bob will change the period of the pendulum. This change of length can be minimized by using special materials for the pendulum rod which exhibit little change with temperature or by using a more complex gridiron pendulum, sometimes called a "banjo" pendulum for its similarity in appearance to the musical instrument.

Other applications

Schuler tuning

As first explained by Maximilian Schuler in his classic 1923 paper, a pendulum whose period exactly equals the orbital period of a hypothetical satellite orbiting just above the surface of the earth (about 84 minutes) will tend to remain pointing at the center of the earth when its support is suddenly displaced. This is the basic principle of Schuler tuning that must be included in the design of any inertial guidance system that will be operated near the earth, such as in ships and aircraft.

Religious practice

Pendulum motion appears in religious ceremonies as well. The swinging incense burner called a censer, also known as a thurible, is an example of a pendulum.

See also


Further reading

  • Michael R.Matthews, Arthur Stinner, Colin F. Gauld. The Pendulum: Scientific, Historical, Philosophical and Educational Perspectives. Springer, 2005.
  • Michael R. Matthews, Colin Gauld and Arthur Stinner. The Pendulum: Its Place in Science, Culture and Pedagogy. Science & Education, 2005, 13, 261-277.
  • Morton, W. Scott and Charlton M. Lewis (2005). China: Its History and Culture. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc.
  • Needham, Joseph (1986). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 3, Mathematics and the Sciences of the Heavens and the Earth. Taipei: Caves Books, Ltd.
pendulum in Arabic: بندول
pendulum in Bulgarian: Махало
pendulum in Catalan: Pèndol
pendulum in Czech: Kyvadlo
pendulum in Danish: Matematisk pendul
pendulum in German: Pendel
pendulum in Spanish: Péndulo
pendulum in Esperanto: Pendolo
pendulum in Basque: Pendulu
pendulum in Persian: آونگ
pendulum in French: Pendule (physique)
pendulum in Korean: 진자
pendulum in Italian: Pendolo
pendulum in Hebrew: מטוטלת מתמטית
pendulum in Hungarian: Matematikai inga
pendulum in Malay (macrolanguage): Bandul
pendulum in Dutch: Slinger (natuurkunde)
pendulum in Japanese: 振り子
pendulum in Polish: Wahadło
pendulum in Portuguese: Pêndulo
pendulum in Romanian: Pendul gravitaţional
pendulum in Russian: Математический маятник
pendulum in Slovak: Kyvadlo
pendulum in Slovenian: Nihalo
pendulum in Finnish: Heiluri
pendulum in Swedish: Pendel
pendulum in Ukrainian: Маятник
pendulum in Chinese: 擺

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