MMM – Scotland’s Falkirk Wheel – an Engineering Marvel

The Falkirk Wheel; photo credit: Wikipedia

Magnificent Metal Monday travels “across the pond” today to highlight Scotland’s Falkirk Wheel, the only fully rotating boat lift in the world. According to UK based Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), the wheel was built as part of the £85.4m Millennium link project to reunite the Forth and Clyde and Union Canals in Scotland. The canals had previously been linked by a staircase of 11 locks which took nearly a day to pass through. The locks were dismantled in 1933. Before the Falkirk Wheel was constructed, it wasn’t possible to get from the Union Canal to the Forth and Clyde by boat. It now takes about 10 minutes for a boat to be lifted from the Forth and Clyde to the aqueduct 24m above that leads to the Union Canal. The Wheel opened in 2002.

The wheel is based on Archimedes’ principles – the clever ancient Greek engineer and mathematician.

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The wheel uses 2 gondolas which raise boats by 24m. As the Union Canal is 11m higher than the aqueduct at the top of the wheel, boats then go through 2 locks to reach the canal.

How the Wheel was Built – Fast Facts

  • 1,200 tonnes of steel were used in its construction. The wheel has more than 15,000 bolts, matched to 45,000 bolt holes. Each bolt was tightened by hand.
  • The Falkirk Wheel was designed to last 120 years. 1000 people took part in construction.
  • Early challenges included tar and mercury contamination as the ground had previously been used as a mine and tar works. Other early stage work included laying 600m of access to roads to get plant and materials to the site.
  • Once the area was cleared, engineers dug deep foundations for the structure and used 22m concrete piles socketed onto the bedrock for support.
  • The wheel was constructed and fully assembled at the Butterley Engineering plant in Derbyshire. It was then dismantled and driven to Falkirk in 35 lorry loads. Workers reassembled it into 5 sections which were lifted into place.
  • As the wheel rotates in alternate directions, the changing load can cause stress to parts of the structure. To avoid fatigue – weakening caused by repeatedly applied loads – engineers bolted sections together instead of welding them.
  • The Falkirk Wheel is 35m tall – the same as 8 double decker buses stacked on top of each other.
  • Each gondola, used to raise the boats, holds 500,000 litres of water, the same amount as an Olympic swimming pool.
  • The Wheel only uses 1.5kWh of energy to turn, the same amount as it would take to boil 8 household kettles.

The world’s first and only rotating boat lift was opened by Her Majesty, The Queen in 2002 and sine the opening, more than 5.5 million people have visited it – benefiting tourism and the local community.

Check out this video to watch this engineering marvel in action!

Video courtesy of Ice.org.uk.

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