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The Falkirk Wheel by Dave Whitehouse

05 October 2012


When one travels, especially from any outlying country like New Zealand, to some major city or country one tends to visit the tourist spots and the edifices by coach, car or cruise ship. One then comes home and bores anyone who happens to be in earshot of all the things one has seen and experienced, those things that most other travellers have probably already seen before you.

So, in our travels we try to stay longer in new environments and get to know the towns and the locals, be that in Europe, the Americas, Canada, Australia, Asia or Timbuktu.

To that end when someone says something like, 'You really should divert off the highway and see this ..' then that's us, and we make the effort. I am sure London, Paris, New York or Rome have amazing tourist attractions but they can be seen endlessly in other formats but to see a child play with a football inside a covered bridge in British Columbia , or watch the gently falling snow outside a warm English pub, or see the Fall in full colour across a New England lake, these are moments that can be savoured and never forgotten.

Here's an example...

The Scots are known as Engineers. In the town of Falkirk, roughly equidistant between Glasgow and Edinburgh, such engineering skill has been taken to the ultimate level with the Falkirk Wheel. On this spot previously were eleven step-locks to take vessels the 80 feet vertical difference between the Union, and Forth and Clyde canals. These fell in to dis-use and it was in 2000 that the idea was forwarded to replace them with this engineering marvel and again open the canals to everyday use.

The principle is ridiculously simple, something we all learned in our Science classes at school, 'Archimedes principle' which says that a body displaces its exact weight when placed in water. Remember being taught of Archimedes yelling from his bath-tub 'Eureka'- I have found it' when he figured that principle out? On the wheel there are two caissons (tanks), one top and one bottom, that hold 80 thousand gallons of water each and up to four canal-barges, so therefore one balances against the other. If a barge comes into the top caisson from the top canal, whether it is carrying people, bricks, lead or feathers, its total weight displaces that same weight of water and then it weights exactly the same as the caisson below. All they do then is turn the whole thing 180 degrees putting the top barge at the bottom and vice-versa. Easy-peasy. The electric power needed to do this four-minute turn is the equivalent of boiling eight jugs of water. To watch it do its turn lifting or lowering these canal-barges is just awesome and it is something men, especially, stand for hours in awe contemplating such clever engineering.

The canals and their locks in the UK are very old and today most of the locks date back 300 years and still work beautifully, albeit, with a little effort by the barge owners. The Falkirk Wheel can easily be imagined to be operating in another three centuries such is the simplicity of the design and the low operating costs. Not quite as low as a hand-operated lock gate operated by a huffing and puffing barge owner, but still pretty good by any standards.

And it's no coincidence that the Wheel is the shape of a celtic battle-axe.

This little diversion on the road to Edinburgh is a hugely worthwhile exercise.

Dave Whitehouse

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