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Kater's pendulum




To determine g, the acceleration of gravity at a particular location.



Kater's pendulum, stopwatch, meter scale and knife edges.


Kater’s pendulum, shown in Fig. 1, is a physical pendulum composed of a metal rod 1.20 m in length, upon which are mounted a sliding metal weight W1, a sliding wooden weight W2, a small sliding metal cylinder w, and two sliding knife edges K1 and K2 that face each other. Each of the sliding objects can be clamped in place on the rod. The pendulum can suspended and set swinging by resting either knife edge on a flat, level surface. The wooden weight W2 is the same size and shape as the metal weight W1. Its function is to provide as near equal air resistance to swinging as possible in either suspension, which happens if W1 and W2, and separately K1 and K2, are constrained to be equidistant from the ends of the metal rod. The centre of mass G can be located by balancing the pendulum on an external knife edge. Due to the difference in mass between the metal and wooden weights W1 and W2, G is not at the centre of the rod, and the distances h1 and h2 from G to the suspension points O1 and O2 at the knife edges K1 and K2 are not equal. Fine adjustments in the position of G, and thus in h1 and h2, can be made by moving the small metal cylinder w.


In Fig. 1, we consider the force of gravity to be acting at G. If hi is the distance to G from the suspension point Oi at the knife edge Ki, the equation of motion of the pendulum is  


where Ii is the moment of inertia of the pendulum about the suspension point Oi, and i can be 1 or 2. Comparing to the equation of motion for a simple pendulum               



we see that the two equations of motion are the same if we take


It is convenient to define the radius of gyration of a compound pendulum such that if all its mass M were at a distance from Oi, the moment of inertia about Oi would be Ii , which we do by writing



Inserting this definition into equation (1) shows that


If IG is the moment of inertia of the pendulum about its centre of mass G, we can also define the radius of gyration about the centre of mass by writing                                                                  


The parallel axis theorem gives us


so that, using (2), we have


The period of the pendulum from either suspension point is then


Squaring (3), one can show that


and in turn,                                             


which allows us to calculate g,





Pendulums are used to regulate pendulum clocks, and are used in scientific instruments such as accelerometers and seismometers. Historically they were used as gravimeters to measure the acceleration of gravity in geophysical surveys, and even as a standard of length. The problem with using pendulums proved to be in measuring their length.

A fine wire suspending a metal sphere approximates a simple pendulum, but the wire changes length, due to the varying tension needed to support the swinging pendulum. In addition, small amounts of angular momentum tend to creep in, and the centre of mass of the sphere can be hard to locate unless the sphere has highly uniform density. With a compound pendulum, there is a point called the centre of oscillation, a distance l from the suspension point along a line through the centre of mass, where l is the length of a simple pendulum with the same period. When suspended from the centre of oscillation, the compound pendulum will have the same period as when suspended from the original suspension point. The centre of oscillation can be located by suspending from various points and measuring the periods, but it is difficult to get an exact match in the period, so again there is uncertainty in the value of l.


With equation (4), derived by Friedrich Bessel in 1826, the situation is improved. h1 + h2, being the distance between the knife edges, can be measured accurately. h1 – h2 is more difficult to measure accurately, because accurate location of the centre of mass G is difficult. However, if T1 and T2 are very nearly equal, the second term in (4) is quite small compared to the first, and h1 – h2 does not have to be known as accurately as h1 + h2.

Kater's pendulum was used as a gravimeter to measure the local acceleration of gravity with greater accuracy than an ordinary pendulum, because it avoids having to measure l. It was popular from its invention in 1817 until the 1950’s, when began to be possible to directly measure the acceleration of gravity during free fall using a Michelson interferometer. Such an absolute gravimeter is not particularly portable, but it can be used to accurately calibrate a relative gravimeter consisting of a mass hanging from a spring adjacent to an accurate length scale. The relative gravimeter can then be carried to any location where it is desired to measure the acceleration of gravity.


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