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Atwood’s Machine Experiment PHYS1007 – Fall 2018

4. Atwood's Machine Experiment

Atwood's machine is a device which allows a kinematic measurement of the acceleration of gravity by
slowing the motion of a pair of weights. You will measure a time interval with an electronic timer that
starts and stops automatically. There are many possible causes of systematic error which you will have to
be on the lookout for.

To determine the local acceleration due to gravity using Atwood's Machine and to measure the frictional
torque of the apparatus.


Atwood’s Machine consists of two unequal weights joined by a light inextensible string which passes over
a light pulley. A solenoid magnet and micro-switch have been added to the machine to provide a precise
method of timing the movement of the weights.

Figure 1: Atwood's Machine Apparatus

4. Atwood’s Machine Experiment PHYS1007 – Fall 2018


Assume that 𝑚𝑚2 > 𝑚𝑚1. Applying the second law of motion on weights

� 𝐹𝐹 = 𝑚𝑚𝑚𝑚 (1)

For the first mass, 𝑇𝑇1 − 𝑚𝑚1 𝑔𝑔 = 𝑚𝑚1 𝑎𝑎 (2)

and for the second, 𝑇𝑇2 − 𝑚𝑚2 𝑔𝑔 = 𝑚𝑚2 (−𝑎𝑎) (3)

Figure 2: Atwood's machine forces diagram

In the equations of motion for rotating systems, friction always appears in the form of a torque which
tends to slow down the rotation; there is a counter-clockwise torque 𝜏𝜏 = 𝑇𝑇2 ′𝑟𝑟- 𝑇𝑇1 ′𝑟𝑟, where 𝑇𝑇1 ′ and 𝑇𝑇2 ′ are
the reactions to 𝑇𝑇1 and 𝑇𝑇2 , having the same magnitudes (𝑇𝑇𝑖𝑖′ = 𝑇𝑇𝑖𝑖 ) and 𝑟𝑟 is the radius of the pulley. This
torque causes the pulley to rotate with angular acceleration 𝛼𝛼, and for the rotation of the pulley (second
law applied to rotations) we have

� 𝜏𝜏 = 𝐼𝐼𝐼𝐼 (4)

𝑇𝑇2 𝑟𝑟 − 𝑇𝑇1 𝑟𝑟 − Γ = 𝐼𝐼𝐼𝐼 (5)

4. Atwood’s Machine Experiment PHYS1007 – Fall 2018

Where 𝐼𝐼 is the rotational inertia of the pulley (which can be approximated by the moment of inertia of a
cylinder), Γ is the torque due to the friction in the axle, and 𝑟𝑟 is again the radius of the pulley. We also
assume that the angle between the string and the radius of the pulley is always 𝜃𝜃 = 90𝑜𝑜 so that sin(𝜃𝜃) = 1.
Now, one needs a fourth equation (unknowns are 𝑎𝑎, 𝛼𝛼, 𝑇𝑇1 , 𝑇𝑇2 ). It comes from our assumption that there is
no slipping of the string over the pulley. So, the angular acceleration (𝛼𝛼) si,

𝛼𝛼 = (6)
The substitution of 𝛼𝛼 of Eq. 6 into Eq. 5 gives

𝑇𝑇2 𝑟𝑟 − 𝑇𝑇1 𝑟𝑟 − Γ = (7)
or (𝑇𝑇2 − 𝑇𝑇1 ) = + (8)
𝑟𝑟2 𝑟𝑟
Subtracting Eq. 2 from Eq. 3 gives

(𝑇𝑇2 − 𝑇𝑇1 ) = −(𝑚𝑚1 + 𝑚𝑚2 )𝑎𝑎 + (𝑚𝑚2 − 𝑚𝑚1 )𝑔𝑔 (9)

Equaling, Eq. 8 and Eq. 9 results in

+ = −(𝑚𝑚1 + 𝑚𝑚2 )𝑎𝑎 + (𝑚𝑚2 − 𝑚𝑚1 )𝑔𝑔 (10)
𝑟𝑟2 𝑟𝑟

𝐼𝐼 Γ (11)
�𝑚𝑚1 + 𝑚𝑚2 + � 𝑎𝑎 = (𝑚𝑚 2 − 𝑚𝑚 1 )𝑔𝑔 −
𝑟𝑟2 𝑟𝑟

(𝑚𝑚2 − 𝑚𝑚1 )𝑔𝑔 − Γ�𝑟𝑟

𝑎𝑎 = (12)
𝑚𝑚1 + 𝑚𝑚2 + 𝐼𝐼�𝑟𝑟 2

Or, in order to use only total mass 𝑀𝑀 = 𝑚𝑚1 + 𝑚𝑚2 , and the mass difference Δ𝑚𝑚 = 𝑚𝑚2 − 𝑚𝑚1 the
acceleration looks like this

Δ𝑚𝑚 𝑔𝑔 − Γ�𝑟𝑟
𝑎𝑎 = (13)
𝑀𝑀 + 𝐼𝐼�𝑟𝑟 2

Since the masses move along straight, vertical lines, at a constant acceleration, with an initial velocity of
0, one can determine the acceleration by measuring the time, 𝑡𝑡, it takes for 𝑚𝑚1 to rise a distance ℎ using
the relation

4. Atwood’s Machine Experiment PHYS1007 – Fall 2018

𝑎𝑎𝑡𝑡 2 (14)
Eliminating 𝑎𝑎 from the last two equations, we obtain

2ℎ Δ𝑚𝑚 𝑔𝑔 − Γ�𝑟𝑟
= (15)
𝑡𝑡2 𝑀𝑀 + 𝐼𝐼� 2
Two more simplifications can be done, first, the moment of inertia of the pulley is the one of a cylinder,

𝐼𝐼𝑐𝑐𝑐𝑐𝑐𝑐𝑐𝑐𝑐𝑐𝑐𝑐𝑐𝑐𝑐𝑐 = 𝑀𝑀 𝑟𝑟 2 (16)
2 𝑝𝑝
Where 𝑀𝑀𝑝𝑝 is the mass of the pulley and 𝑟𝑟, its radius. By substituting Eq. 16 in Eq. 15, and substituting the
radius of the pulley by its diameter (𝑑𝑑 = 2𝑟𝑟), which is easier to measure, we obtain,

2ℎ Δ𝑚𝑚 𝑔𝑔 − 2Γ�𝑑𝑑
= (17)
𝑡𝑡2 1
𝑀𝑀 + 2 𝑀𝑀𝑝𝑝

Reorganizing variables in Eq. 17 we can obtain a linearized relationship, i.e. a relationship that can be
described by the equation of a line, 𝒚𝒚 = 𝑚𝑚𝒙𝒙 + 𝑏𝑏

𝟏𝟏 𝑔𝑔 −Γ
= 𝚫𝚫𝒎𝒎 +
𝒕𝒕 𝟐𝟐 1 1 (18)
2ℎ �𝑀𝑀 + 2 𝑀𝑀𝑝𝑝 � ℎ𝑑𝑑 �𝑀𝑀 + 2 𝑀𝑀𝑝𝑝 �

Therefore, a plot of 𝑡𝑡 2 vs Δ𝑚𝑚 can allow you to get 𝑔𝑔 and Γ from the slope and y-intercept of a first degree
polynomial least square fit.

4. Atwood’s Machine Experiment PHYS1007 – Fall 2018

1. All measurements will have to be performed three times. The statistical uncertainty will need
to be calculated and then compared with the instrumental uncertainty to determine the dominant
source of uncertainty on your measurements. The following is a sample table that can be used to
organize your data on your notebook.


Iron Other One washer Distance Diameter of

core + weight + travelled the pulley
(mass of all/10)
screw screw by 𝒎𝒎𝟏𝟏

𝒎𝒎𝟏𝟏 (𝒈𝒈) 𝒎𝒎𝟐𝟐 (𝒈𝒈) 𝒎𝒎𝒘𝒘 (𝒈𝒈) 𝒉𝒉 (𝒄𝒄𝒄𝒄) 𝒅𝒅 (𝒎𝒎𝒎𝒎)

… … … … …
Readings … … … … …
… … … … …
Mean … … … … …
Instrumental … … … … …
𝝈𝝈 … … … … …
𝝈𝝈𝒎𝒎𝒎𝒎𝒎𝒎𝒎𝒎 (stat. … … … … …
Chosen Uncertainty … … … … …
(Instr. or Stat.)
Final Measurement …±… …±… …±… …±… …±…
Table 1: Example of a table for masses and lengths.

A. Mass Measurements

2. The weight has a rusted circle under it (iron insert), it’s the only one that will be attracted to the
magnet, is 𝒎𝒎𝟏𝟏 . Weigh it, including the screw.

 Let the string hang on the side and make sure it doesn’t pull on the scale; the mass of the string
will be neglected.

3. Weigh the other weight with its screw, this will be 𝒎𝒎𝟐𝟐 .

4. Measure the total mass of ten washers. Divide the total mass by 10 and record the mass of one
washer, 𝑚𝑚𝑤𝑤 . Instrumental uncertainty will also have to be divided by 10.

4. Atwood’s Machine Experiment PHYS1007 – Fall 2018

B. Length Measurements

5. Attach the masses at both ends of the string and thread it over the pulley.

 The mass with the iron core must be on the solenoid side.

 The string must pass through the guide holes on both sides of the pulley.

 The string may slip, and the weights may hit you, so BE CAREFUL.

6. Using a 2m long meter stick, measure the travelling distance of 𝑚𝑚1 from the top of the solenoid to
the bottom of the mass when it is in contact with the micro-switch at the top. This will be h.

7. Using a caliper, measure the separation between the two sides of the string, it will be equivalent to
the diameter of the pulley.

 Try to be as accurate as possible; it might help to put the same mass on both sides.

C. Time Measurements

8. Download the Logger Pro file from CuLearn.

The Logger Pro file provided to you will have black and red columns, black ones are “Manual”
columns that you can fill by entering data with the keyboard. The red columns are “Calculated”
columns that will be calculated automatically once you define the calculation to use.

9. Place 10 washers on 𝑚𝑚2 and 0 on 𝑚𝑚1 , the mass with the iron core.

10. Attach the masses at both ends of the string and thread it over the pulley. Make sure that 𝑚𝑚1 (the
mass with the iron core) is on the solenoid side.

11. Set the POWER switch on the front panel of the clock to ON.

12. Carefully raise 𝑚𝑚2 until 𝑚𝑚1 is in contact with the solenoid, and then, RESET the clock. This will
cause the solenoid to be activated, thus, holding 𝑚𝑚1 in place. This procedure gives minimum
oscillations of 𝑚𝑚1 as it rises.

13. Stabilize the oscillations of 𝑚𝑚2 and press the START button (or the trigger switch). This action
releases 𝑚𝑚1 and starts the clock simultaneously. The clock automatically stops when 𝑚𝑚1 hits the
micro-switch at the top. Enter the time shown on the clock, by hand, in your logger pro file.

 Make sure that either mass doesn’t swing like a pendulum, otherwise it will introduce a
centripetal force and the string might rub against the apparatus.
4. Atwood’s Machine Experiment PHYS1007 – Fall 2018

14. Calculate the difference of mass between the two sides (∆𝑚𝑚) for each configuration. You simply
have to take the sum of the masses on the falling side (𝑚𝑚2 ) and subtract the sum of the masses on
the rising side (𝑚𝑚1 ).

For example, for the case of 10 washers on 𝑚𝑚2 (falling) and 0 on 𝑚𝑚1 (rising)

∆𝑚𝑚10−0 = (𝑚𝑚2 + 10𝑚𝑚𝑤𝑤 ) − (𝑚𝑚1 ) (19)

15. The uncertainty on ∆𝑚𝑚 (𝜎𝜎∆𝑚𝑚 ) has to be calculated by combining three measurements together
(propagation of the uncertainty). This quantity gives the horizontal error bars for the experimental
points on your graph. In general, it can be shown that for all configurations:

2 + 𝜎𝜎 2 + 100𝜎𝜎 2
𝜎𝜎∆𝑚𝑚 = �𝜎𝜎𝑚𝑚 (20)
1 𝑚𝑚2 𝑚𝑚𝑤𝑤

16. Record five data points {𝑡𝑡1 , 𝑡𝑡2 , 𝑡𝑡3 , 𝑡𝑡4 , 𝑡𝑡5 } in your Logger Pro file.

17. Determine the instrumental uncertainty on your time measurements.

18. Once you have five successful trials, transfer one washer from the 𝑚𝑚2 side to the 𝑚𝑚1 (solenoid)
side. The best way to unscrew the mass is to spin the mass, not the screw, otherwise the string will
tangle up.

 Always re-check that the string is properly threaded in the guide holes and that alignment is
good before starting your trial run.

19. Repeat the procedure and record the corresponding times for each configuration. Measure for all
five cases (10-0, 9-1, 8-2, 7-3, 6-4).

4. Atwood’s Machine Experiment PHYS1007 – Fall 2018

D. Completing Your Data Table

You have to provide a sample calculation in your lab report for each of the columns in the data
table. Even for those that are automatically calculated!
20. The Logger Pro file will not calculate anything for you, until you specify the equation to use. To
set an automatic calculation for one of the column of your table, double click on the column title.
A panel will pop-up and you will be able to enter an equation in the Expression section.
a. When you want to refer to a column, you have to enter its name with quotation marks “ ”.
Alternatively, you can click the “Variables (Column)” button to bring a list of possible
columns to use.
b. Operations like addition +, subtraction -, multiplication *, and division / are valid.
c. Parenthesis (), determine the priority of operations.
d. The square-root operation is sqrt(), while the power operator is the caret, or circumflex
symbol ^.
e. For example, if you want to add the column Time 1 to Time 2, you could type in the
Expression column "Time 1"+"Time 2".
f. Be careful with the list of function provided to you by Logger Pro since some of them (like
mean or stddev) will act on the entire column, and not on individual measurements.

21. Use the calculated column to calculate the average time (𝑡𝑡𝑎𝑎𝑎𝑎 ), the standard deviation (𝜎𝜎) and the
standard deviation of the mean (𝜎𝜎𝑚𝑚𝑚𝑚𝑚𝑚𝑚𝑚 ).

22. Compare the instrumental uncertainty of the clock with the standard deviation of the mean of the
five trials and choose either the instrumental uncertainty or the statistical uncertainty as your
dominant source of uncertainty. This is 𝜎𝜎𝑡𝑡𝑎𝑎𝑎𝑎 .

23. From 𝑡𝑡𝑎𝑎𝑎𝑎 , you can calculate 𝑡𝑡 2 . This will be the y-axis values of your graph.

24. You’ll also need to find the uncertainty on 𝑡𝑡 2 , which gives the vertical error bars for experimental
points. If you use the propagation of uncertainty, you should find that

𝑓𝑓(𝑡𝑡𝑎𝑎𝑎𝑎 ) = 2

𝜕𝜕𝜕𝜕 2 2 𝜕𝜕𝜕𝜕 2

𝜎𝜎𝑓𝑓 = � � 𝜎𝜎𝑡𝑡𝑎𝑎𝑎𝑎 ; =− 3
𝜕𝜕𝑡𝑡𝑎𝑎𝑎𝑎 𝜕𝜕𝑡𝑡𝑎𝑎𝑎𝑎 𝑡𝑡𝑎𝑎𝑎𝑎

2𝜎𝜎𝑡𝑡𝑎𝑎𝑎𝑎 (22)
𝜎𝜎 1 = 3
𝑡𝑡𝑎𝑎𝑎𝑎 𝑡𝑡𝑎𝑎𝑎𝑎

4. Atwood’s Machine Experiment PHYS1007 – Fall 2018

E. Plotting the Graph

25. You need to set your graph y-axis to this value. Double click on your y-axis, select the Axes Option
tab, and put a checkmark next to the relevant calculated column as your Y-Axis Columns.

26. Make sure all your data points are shown with their corresponding error bars.

27. From equation (18) you can observe that if you plot 2
vs. Δ𝑚𝑚 you should obtain a linear
relationship (𝑦𝑦 = 𝑚𝑚𝑚𝑚 + 𝑏𝑏). Find the slope (𝑚𝑚 ± 𝜎𝜎𝑚𝑚 ) and the intercept (𝑏𝑏 ± 𝜎𝜎𝑏𝑏 ) by fitting a straight
line to your data (Analyze –> Linear Fit).

28. If the uncertainties don’t appear, double click on the Linear Fit panel and check “Show

29. Make sure that all your table values are visible and print your graph.

F. Data Analysis

30. Calculate M, the total mass of the machine, and its uncertainty 𝜎𝜎𝑀𝑀 .

𝑀𝑀 = 𝑚𝑚1 + 𝑚𝑚2 + 10𝑚𝑚𝑤𝑤 (23)

2 + 𝜎𝜎 2 + 100𝜎𝜎 2
𝜎𝜎𝑀𝑀 = �𝜎𝜎𝑚𝑚 (24)
1 𝑚𝑚2 𝑚𝑚𝑤𝑤

31. From Eq. 18, you find that the slope (𝑚𝑚) is equal to:

𝑚𝑚 =
1 (25)
2ℎ �𝑀𝑀 + 2 𝑀𝑀𝑝𝑝 �

and therefore, you can solve for the gravitational acceleration 𝑔𝑔. Calculate 𝑔𝑔 and express it in units
of 𝑚𝑚⁄𝑠𝑠 2 .

𝑔𝑔 = 2𝑚𝑚ℎ �𝑀𝑀 + 𝑀𝑀𝑝𝑝 � (26)
For the mass of the pulley, use 𝑴𝑴𝒑𝒑 = (𝟏𝟏𝟏𝟏𝟏𝟏 ± 𝟏𝟏)g.

4. Atwood’s Machine Experiment PHYS1007 – Fall 2018

32. Calculate the error on 𝑔𝑔, which is given by:

𝜕𝜕𝜕𝜕 2 2 𝜕𝜕𝜕𝜕 2 2 𝜕𝜕𝜕𝜕 2 2 𝜕𝜕𝜕𝜕

𝜎𝜎𝑔𝑔 = � � 𝜎𝜎𝑚𝑚 + � � 𝜎𝜎ℎ + � � 𝜎𝜎𝑀𝑀 + � 2
� 𝜎𝜎𝑀𝑀
𝜕𝜕𝜕𝜕 𝜕𝜕ℎ 𝜕𝜕𝜕𝜕 𝜕𝜕𝑀𝑀𝑝𝑝 𝑝𝑝

𝜕𝜕𝜕𝜕 1 𝜕𝜕𝜕𝜕 1
= 2ℎ �𝑀𝑀 + 𝑀𝑀𝑝𝑝 � ; = 2𝑚𝑚 �𝑀𝑀 + 𝑀𝑀𝑝𝑝 �
𝜕𝜕𝜕𝜕 2 𝜕𝜕ℎ 2
𝜕𝜕𝜕𝜕 𝜕𝜕𝜕𝜕
= 2𝑚𝑚ℎ ; = 𝑚𝑚ℎ
𝜕𝜕𝜕𝜕 𝜕𝜕𝑀𝑀𝑝𝑝

2 2
1 1
𝜎𝜎𝑔𝑔 = ��2ℎ �𝑀𝑀 + 𝑀𝑀𝑝𝑝 �� 𝜎𝜎𝑚𝑚
2 + �2𝑚𝑚 �𝑀𝑀 + 𝑀𝑀 �� 𝜎𝜎 2 + (2𝑚𝑚ℎ)2 𝜎𝜎 2 + (𝑚𝑚ℎ)2 𝜎𝜎 2 (27)
2 2 𝑝𝑝 ℎ 𝑀𝑀 𝑀𝑀𝑝𝑝

A good strategy to calculate the uncertainty on 𝑔𝑔 (in fact every propagation of uncertainty) is to
calculate the numerical value of the four uncertainty terms individually. This allows to check if units
are right (they should all be the same), find the dominant source of uncertainty and make you waste
less time in case you make a mistake while typing digits on your calculator.

33. To find the frictional torque (Γ), you need the y-intercept (𝑏𝑏). By setting ∆𝑚𝑚 = 0 in Eq. 18, the y-
intercept is:

𝑏𝑏 = −
1 (28)
ℎ𝑑𝑑 �𝑀𝑀 + 2 𝑀𝑀𝑝𝑝 �

It is simply a matter of rearranging Eq. 31 to determine Γ and its uncertainty. Calculate Γ ± σΓ and
express it in units of Nm.

Γ = −𝑏𝑏ℎ𝑑𝑑 �𝑀𝑀 + 𝑀𝑀𝑝𝑝 � (29)
You can also propagate the uncertainty to find

𝜕𝜕Γ 2 𝜕𝜕Γ 2 𝜕𝜕Γ 2 𝜕𝜕Γ 2 2 𝜕𝜕Γ
𝜎𝜎Γ = �� � 𝜎𝜎𝑏𝑏2 + � � 𝜎𝜎ℎ2 + � � 𝜎𝜎𝑑𝑑2 + � � 𝜎𝜎𝑀𝑀 +� 2
� 𝜎𝜎𝑀𝑀
𝜕𝜕𝜕𝜕 𝜕𝜕ℎ 𝜕𝜕𝜕𝜕 𝜕𝜕𝜕𝜕 𝜕𝜕𝑀𝑀𝑝𝑝 𝑝𝑝

𝜕𝜕Γ 1 𝜕𝜕Γ 1
= −ℎ𝑑𝑑 �𝑀𝑀 + 𝑀𝑀𝑝𝑝 � ; = −𝑏𝑏𝑏𝑏 �𝑀𝑀 + 𝑀𝑀𝑝𝑝 �
𝜕𝜕𝜕𝜕 2 𝜕𝜕ℎ 2
𝜕𝜕Γ 1 𝜕𝜕Γ 𝜕𝜕Γ 𝑏𝑏ℎ𝑑𝑑
= −𝑏𝑏ℎ �𝑀𝑀 + 𝑀𝑀𝑝𝑝 � ; = −𝑏𝑏ℎ𝑑𝑑 ; =−
𝜕𝜕𝜕𝜕 2 𝜕𝜕𝜕𝜕 𝜕𝜕𝑀𝑀𝑝𝑝 2

4. Atwood’s Machine Experiment PHYS1007 – Fall 2018

2 2 2
1 1 1 𝑏𝑏ℎ𝑑𝑑 2 2
𝜎𝜎Γ = ��ℎ𝑑𝑑 �𝑀𝑀 + 𝑀𝑀𝑝𝑝 �� 𝜎𝜎𝑏𝑏2 + �𝑏𝑏𝑏𝑏 �𝑀𝑀 + 𝑀𝑀𝑝𝑝 �� 𝜎𝜎ℎ2 + �𝑏𝑏ℎ �𝑀𝑀 + 𝑀𝑀𝑝𝑝 �� 𝜎𝜎𝑑𝑑2 + (𝑏𝑏ℎ𝑑𝑑)2 𝜎𝜎𝑀𝑀
+� � 𝜎𝜎𝑀𝑀𝑝𝑝 (30)
2 2 2 2

34. Compare your experimental value of 𝑔𝑔 with the accepted value of (9.81 ± 0.01 𝑠𝑠2 ) using the
consistency test. There is no frictional torque comparison, since friction depends on too many
factors. Nevertheless, comment on the magnitude of it.


Present your results as 𝑔𝑔 = ( … ± . . . ) 𝑠𝑠2 and Γ = ( … ±. . . )𝑁𝑁𝑁𝑁 .

Don’t forget to write a meaningful discussion. If you run out of ideas, expand these topics:
• How does your value of 𝑔𝑔 compare with the accepted value (9.81 ± 0.01 𝑠𝑠2 )? Quantify your answer.
Sentences like: “My value is close to the accepted” are not valid as this statement is too relative.
Instead, use the t-test, or compare the difference with the uncertainty.
• What does it mean if your values are consistent or inconsistent? What does the consistency test tell
• What could you do to increase the precision of your measurements? Which instrument would you
replace? Why? Would you follow a different procedure? Why?
• Is the sign of Γ correct? Why? Why not? Explain your reasoning.
• Is friction part of the uncertainty in the measurement of 𝑔𝑔? Why? How about air resistance? Is it a
significant source of uncertainty? Why?
• What is the effect of the weight and elasticity of the string? Explain your reasoning.
• How does this experiment compare to one where you would calculate 𝑔𝑔 by measuring the time it takes
an object to fall on the ground from a certain height. Estimate the uncertainty of such a measurement.
• Geologists are able to discover oil deposits by measuring variations on the gravitational acceleration
in the order of ~0.00005 m/s2 . Is your measurement precise enough to find a variation of such
• Under what circumstances (more than one) the acceleration of the Atwood’s machine is equal to zero?