Photo of a bobbin attached by a loop of string to a drink bottle, with another srting loop going upwards out of the shot.Have you ever wondered how cranes can lift such heavy things? Their pulleys really help lighten the load. In this activity, have a play with some pulleys. These simple machines can make heavy weights as light as a feather!

You will need

  • Several sewing machine bobbins (can be purchased at sewing stores)
  • Japanese-style chopstick
  • String
  • Scissors
  • Water bottle with handle, or an empty 2 L milk carton
  • Two tables that are the same height
  • Someone to help

The simplest tackle

  1. Put two cups of water into the water bottle.
  2. Get help to put the two tables close together, so there is a gap of about 5 cm between them.
  3. Photo of a bobbin on a chopstick.Put one bobbin onto the chopstick.
  4. Place the chopstick so it bridges the gap between the tables, with the bobbin in the gap.
  5. Cut a piece of string about two metres long, and tie one end of the string to the water bottle.
  6. Photo of a bobbin on a chopstick with a string threaded over it.Put the water bottle directly under the chopstick, and then run the string up and over the bobbin.
  7. Get your assistant to hold the chopstick so it doesn’t move.
  8. Image of a string, threaded over a bobbin pulley, pulling up a drink bottle.Pull down on the string. This will lift the water bottle off the ground!

More pulleys

  1. Untie the long string from the bottle.
  2. Cut another piece of string, around 10 cm long.
  3. Photo of a bobbin attached to a drink bottle by a loop of string.Thread a bobbin onto the short string, and then tie it in a loop around the handle of the water bottle. Knot it in place.
  4. Tie one end of the long string on the chopstick, and make sure there’s a bobbin on it too.
  5. Put the chopstick over the gap between the tables and put the water bottle underneath.
  6. Photo of a loop of string attaching a bobbin to a drink bottle. With a secont loop from the bobbin going upwards out of the shot.Run the long string through the bobbin on the bottle, and then over the bobbin on the chopstick.
  7. Get your assistant to hold the chopstick so it doesn’t move.
  8. Photo of bobbin pulleys pulling a drink bottle.Pull down on the string. Was it easier to lift the bottle this time? Did the bottle move as fast?

Going even bigger

Photo of bobbins being used as pulleys.You can add more bobbins to make your pulley more powerful. For a three bobbin system, tie one bobbin to the bottle and put two on the chopstick. Tie the long string to the bottle, then thread it around one chopstick bobbin, through the bottle bobbin and finally the second chopstick bobbin. Before you lift the bottle, make sure your string isn’t tangled.

A four bobbin pulley set has two bobbins on the chopstick and two on the bottle. Tie the long string to the chopstick, not the bottle. Can you work out how to rig it? You can keep adding more and more bobbins, but it might get tricky to prevent tangles!

What’s happening?

In this activity, you’re making a simple machine called a pulley set, or a block and tackle. These machines are often used to lift things. They can be found in lots of places, from cranes and sailboats to elevators and exercise machines.

Pulleys aren’t just for show. A block and tackle can make heavy things easier to lift, as they make a small force stronger. With a big enough block and tackle, you could use a small rock to lift a boulder!

But you don’t get energy for free. In this activity, as you add pulleys, the bottle moves slower. There’s a mathematical rule that goes with this. If you halve the force to move something, then you double the distance you pull the rope.

In the end, it uses exactly the same amount of energy to get the load moved. So if you want to lift a boulder with small rocks, you’ll need a lot of small rocks (or one rock falling a very long way)!

If you’re after more science activities for kids, subscribe to Double Helix magazine!

Subscribe now! button

2 responses

  1. Mary Howard Avatar
    Mary Howard

    Thank you for this excellent activity.
    The Foundation and Year one students at St Joseph’s in Hawthorn are looking at Toys in the concept SYSTEMS.
    We would be very grateful for any other suggestions you might have to help the students understand the workings of TOYS.

    1. David Avatar

      Hi Mary,
      Thanks for your note! I’m not a teacher, so I’m not sure how helpful this is, but here are a couple of quick thoughts…

      You could get a whole bunch of spinning tops and see which ones spin easiest, spin longest, which ones will keep spinning when you throw a ping pong ball at them, that sort of thing. get everyone to describe them – how heavy are they, what colour, how tall, how wide, try and describe them at perfectly as possible. Some kids might find them hard to spin, though.

      You could set up dominos and knock them over – get a good idea of chain reactions. There are lots of cool videos on the internet to watch too. It’s pretty easy to knock them over accidentally, though.

      Make your own snakes and ladders game? They have to design the board, make the playing pieces, maybe even make the dice by putting masking tape on cubic blocks and drawing on dots? Or just print out a board off the internet, grab some counters and dice and let them play themselves – and if there are some kids who finish quickly, get them to change the rules or change the board or something.

      Anyways, these might be too hard or boring or just no good, but I hope you find something useful here!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

By posting a comment you are agreeing to the Double Helix commenting guidelines.

Why choose the Double Helix magazine for your students?

Perfect for ages 8 – 14

Developed by experienced editors

Engaging and motivating

*84% of readers are more interested in science

Engaging students voice