While it may look like a piece of computer-generated scenery straight out of a video game, the Falkirk Wheel actually transports boats from one disjointed canal to another as they navigate the Scottish countryside.
The Millennium Link project sought to restore navigability through central Scotland, but needed to connect the historic Forth and Clyde canals, separated by some 35 meters, in order to do so. Rather than looking for a terraforming, futuristic solution, the Falkirk Wheel’s architects and engineers came up with a perfectly old-fashioned mechanical solution: a rotating boatlift.
Unique in the world, the Falkirk Wheel is in a sense quite simple. One boat enters the bottom lift while another (which has traveled on an elevated water bridge from the other canal) enters the top lift. When they are both secure, the wheel turns and the two boats are exchanged, with the one that was on the bottom now zooming off on the elevated waterway.
The Falkirk Wheel functions based on the Archimedes theory of displacement, which states that a floating object (in this case a boat) displaces its precise weight in water. Combining this ancient principle with it’s perfectly balanced modern design means that a full, seven-minute rotation requires less energy than powering 100 light bulbs!
But what about those spikes? Engineers have been known to come to blows during booze-fuelled debates on the matter. In reality, the horns neither compensating for mechanical torque or play in the gears, nor do they break water tension to provide a smooth entry into the bottom canal. Instead, they’re a purely aesthetic nod to the traditional Celtic double-headed spear, while also serving as a metaphor for how the Wheel helps to connect the ‘backbone’ of Scotland’s waterways.