Tried to find it online, but nothing. Everyone refers to it and that it's named after the famous James Clerk Maxwell (of the Maxwell electromagnetic laws and some other things), but there is no direct reference, and it's like the experiment has always been done (although you need some concepts of rigid bodies to do it).

If you don't remember, the Maxwell's wheel is a classic mechanics experiment that is usually done in college laboratory practices. The experiment consists of a wheel with a bar through its radius that is hung on two different threads, one at each side. If you roll upwards the threads turning the wheel and then release it all the potential energy of the wheel converts to Kinetic energy of movement + Kinetic energy of rotation. If you measure falling times for different positions you can get the momentum of inertia of the wheel easily using the principle of conservation of energy.

So who came up with it first and when?


1 Answer 1


Confusingly, a Maxwell wheel used to refer to a totally different invention: a color top invented by Maxwell as a student and described in "Experiments On Colour, As Perceived By The Eye" (1855). There are references to this as a 'Maxwell wheel' on Google Book search starting from 1882, though these days it's more commonly called Maxwell's disc.

Maxwell also invented a dynamical top to illustrate the classical laws of rotation, as well as various other pedagogical experiments involving spinning and axles. However, his papers don't seem to include a description of the modern Maxwell wheel, and it is not among his apparatus displayed at the Cavendish Laboratory museum. The first unambiguous mention that I can find of it is from a seminar report on the "Implementation of Curricula in Science Education with Special Regard to the Teaching of Physics" (1974), though this doesn't go into its history.

I think it's therefore likely that the wheel wasn't invented by Maxwell, though its history remains frustratingly murky.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.