The Surreal Appeal of the Falkirk Wheel

3 May 2014

Or how a remarkable piece of engineering bridges the eight story gap between two waterways. The only rotating boat lift of this type in the world, the Falkirk Wheel must be seen to be believed.

Connecting two separate water ways may seem, on paper, and easy objective to achieve. What happens, though, when the two systems are twenty four meters apart? Plus, the word apart here means in terms of height. The solution? An incredible rotating boat lift that looks like something from a steampunk movie.

So, what did the Victorians do for you? For the inhabitants of the United Kingdom, one of their legacies was a huge network of canals. The motorways of their age, they were the major transport arteries of the early industrial revolution but by the mid part of the twentieth century their days were numbered as a method of industrial transport.

So it was for the people of Falkirk, in Scotland. The system of eleven locks between the Union and the Forth and Clyde Canals were, by the nineteen thirties, unused, unloved and irreparable. Eventually they were filled in and the land upon which they once raised and lowered countless thousands of people was built on.

This sad state of affairs meant the Scottish capital city, Edinburgh and its second city, Glasgow, had no water based connection for seventy years. It wasn’t until almost the dawn of the new century that this situation was reconsidered and the idea of the Falkirk Wheel was taken seriously and put in to action. Now the wheel, as well as a connector between the two cities, is a remarkable and awe-inspiring tourist destination in its own right. However, if it wasn’t for the prodigious gambling habits of the British people this amazing structure would never have been built.

Gambling? At the end of the twentieth century the Millennium Commission was established to help communities with projects both large and small. It was an independent body whose commissioners were appointed by Queen Elizabeth – no doubt in pursuit of a Golden Age akin to that of her eponymous predecessor. Looking back it was probably as close as she was going to get, architecturally speaking, Of course, Betty Britain did not sit down and come up with the names herself; she was advised by the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, himself advised by cohort after cohort of Whitehall civil servants.

The money for these projects was provided by the income generated by the UK National Lottery. All in all over two billion pounds was invested in projects before the Commission wound down in 2006. The self evidently expensive Falkirk Wheel took thirty two million pounds from the National Lottery, about half the price of its construction. So, if you consider gambling a sin, then remember that out of every evil some good must come!

The wheel has been functional since 2002. Although the nearest inhabited place is Tamfourhill it was decided to name it after the nearest city, Falkirk. The mechanics and statistics of the wheel are impressive to say the least. The wheel itself has a diameter of thirty five meters and it is made up of two opposing arms. These are extended approximately fifteen meters away from the central axle. The axle itself harkens back to times before even the Victorians. Inspired by the Celtic traditions of Scotland, it is in the shape of a double-headed axe. There are two sets of these arms, twenty five meters apart from each other, both attached to the axle which itself has a diameter of almost four meters.

Between the ends of each arm there are two water filled caissons which are diametrically opposed to each other. In layman’s terms a caisson is a watertight retaining structure and boy can these boys retain! Each has a capacity of almost one hundred thousand US gallons.

The weight is of paramount important to the proper functioning of the Falkirk Wheel. They always weigh the same. This is thanks to a chap called Archimedes and a principle he invented. A floating object – in this case a boat – will displace its own weight in water. When the boat enters the wheel, then, the amount of water that leaves the caissons is absolutely the same weight as the boat itself. The fact that the two caissons are always the same weight keeps the wheel at a balance. Then the forces of science fully take over. Simply by expelling the water from the caissons the wheel – massive though it is – rotates though one hundred and eight degrees in about five minutes. The power used to run the electric motors is tiny, equivalent to boiling just eight kettles. Pretty green, all in all.

Although similar to other wheel lifts, the rotational mechanism of the Falkirk Wheel is one of a kind – no other boat lift in the world uses the same technology. As such the Scottish are very proud of this landmark and it features on the new fifty pound notes recently issued by the Bank of Scotland. As the wheel rotates the axle is supported by slew bearings. These are basically bearings that support the heavy, slow turning load. They are positioned at the end of the axle and almost look as if they are decorative but without them the wheel would not work. The slew bearings are mounted on the plinths. These, in turn must be rock steady in order to avoid complete collapse, so they are constructed on top of piled foundations. A piled foundation is basically one that is very, very deep and when you consider the sheer weight of the wheel, you understand why.

The caissons must rotate at the same speed as the wheel but to keep them level it has to be in the opposite direction. This has the added advantage of making sure that the load of boat and water does not simply tip out the moment the wheel begins to turn. A complex combination of gears drives the caissons at the same speed as the wheel and cancels out the rotation caused by the arms. Thus the caissons are kept level and stable. If they were to become fault, disaster would strike. The opening of the Falkirk Wheel was actually delayed by a month because a set of vandals who opened the gates by force and flooded the structure.

A completely new section of the Union Canal was built to take it to the site of the wheel. This goes from where the canal originally terminated and links up with a new basin at the wheel itself. The level of water in the basin is identical to that of the aqueduct at the top of the wheel and the two are brought together by the new Rough Castle Tunnel, which is one hundred and fifty meters long. As such is it the newest canal tunnel in the UK.

The Falkirk Wheel is open to the public, with a museum and special tours which take about an hour and enable the tourist to experience the whole process that the wheel offers. Some may say that the age of great engineering is over. The Falkirk Wheel is proof that that opinion is most definitely not correct.

First Image Credit Wikimedia


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