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Many things in nature wiggle in a periodic fashion. That is, they vibrate. One such
example is a simple pendulum. If we suspend a mass at the end of a piece of string, we
have a simple pendulum. Here, the to and fro motion represents a periodic motion used in
times past to control the motion of grandfather and cuckoo clocks. Such oscillatory
motion is called simple harmonic motion. It was Galileo who first observed that the time
a pendulum takes to swing back and forth through small distances depends only on the
length of the pendulum The time of this to and fro motion, called the period, does not
depend on the mass of the pendulum or on the size of the arc through which it swings.
Another factor involved in the period of motion is, the acceleration due to gravity (g),
which on the earth is 9.8 m/s2
. It follows then that a long pendulum has a greater period
Different kinds of pendulums include the bifilar pendulum, the Foucault
pendulum and the torsion pendulum. A bifilar pendulum has been used to
record the irregular rotation of the earth as well as to detect earthquakes.
The Foucault pendulum, which French physicist Leon Foucault invented, is
used to demonstrate the rotation of the earth. A torsion pendulum,
although not strictly a pendulum because it doesn't oscillate because of the
force of gravity, is often used for time-keeping purposes, such as regulating
the movement of clocks.
Keeping Time
The most commonly recognized use of pendulums is observed in clocks.
Many clocks, most notably the "grandfather clock," use a pendulum to tally
time. The pendulum swings back and forth at exact intervals determined by
the length at which the pendulum is suspended. To measure time
accurately, a pendulum clock must remain stationary. Any sudden
maneuver of the clock interferes with the regular motion of the pendulum.
Until the 1930s, it was the world's most precise timekeeper. In the 21st
century, pendulum clocks are most valued for their craftsmanship and
A pendulum is used in a metronome, which helps maintain the speed of
music. The metronome dates to the 19th century. It is a hollow box with a
pendulum attached to a moving weight with a fixed weight at the bottom. A
number scale allows the musician to adjust the tempo desired for the piece
being played. The scale indicates the number of fluctuations per minute so
the required beat can be matched with the tempo of the music.
Religious Practice
The thurible or censer is a metal container, hung from one or more chains,
in which incense is burned. Incense is sprinkled on hot charcoal and, as the
celebrant in a religious ceremony swings it back and forth, smoke rises,
carrying the aroma of burnt incense.
Dousing and Divining
Pendulum dowsing and divining have been used throughout history to
guide individuals in making life decisions as well as locating water, gold, oil
and missing objects. It is believed that a pendulum works like an antenna,
picking up information from the energy emanating from people, places and
objects. It is held motionless between thumb and forefinger. A question,
which can be answered "yes" or "no," is asked and the pendulum sways left
or right, clockwise or counter-clockwise providing the trained dowser with
an answer. Pendulums are popular with witches, who use them to
commune with spirit guides.
Attend the circus and you see the trapeze artist swinging like a pendulum in
the air. Take the pirate ride at the amusement park and become one with
the pendulum as your gondola seat swerves in a deep arc from one side to
the other. Ride a pendulum when you hop on the swing in your local park.
Create a pendulum in the backyard by tying an old tire to the branch of a
sturdy tree.
The design of the San Francisco International Airport terminal employs
something called Friction Pendulum seismic isolation bearings to protect
from earthquake damage. These supports create a pendulum motion that
allows the building to sway with the shifting of the ground, thereby
reducing the chances of catastrophic structural damage. The same concept
is employed in the construction of industrial buildings and bridges.