The Falkirk Wheel

How do you move boats up and down hill without using a long series of locks, such as Neptune’s Staircase on Lock Ness? Especially when you have a lot of old, leaky locks, a bridge that’s going to block the canal, and a few other problems? First, you hire a Scots engineer. Then . . .

Until 2002, when boats needed to go from the Union Canal to the Forth and Clyde Canal, they descended 100 feet (33 m) through a series of 11 locks. Each lock has two gates. The gates were opened and closed by pure muscle power. It made for a long, slow, tiring day at best. There had to be a better way to get around Stirling, if you were a boat. Using a crane to lift the boats would have been dangerous and amazingly expensive, because of lifting boats and water up and down requires a LOT of power. or it would have . . .

Enter the brilliant design of the Falkirk Wheel ship-lift. It rotates, using the weight of the water to lift water and boat. [All photos by author]

As you approach the wheel from the uphill (Antonine wall) side, you boggle at the steep hill that you descend and the size of the equipment. If it is moving, the silence is also a bit surprising. for a huge piece of machinery, it makes very little noise.

The base of the lower tower. Note operator for scale.

The idea is simple and amazing. Canal boats or personal boats sail into the box. The watertight doors close, and the mechanism begins turning the wheel. Gravity and momentum take over, and as the weight of the upper chamber pushes down, it raises the lower chamber. Past a certain point, momentum takes over and the boats trade places.

Above you see that the lift is just starting . . .

Boat in the air!

Boat coming down. Note tourists for scale.

I’m an engineering geek. I was oogling the equipment and devouring the tech specs, and so on, the the mild amusement of my guide. My parents are also engineering buffs, so we had fun discussing the physics. The power needed is much lower than you’d think. It needs 22KW to start moving and uses 1.5 kWh to rotate. That’s not much electricity at all.

6 thoughts on “The Falkirk Wheel

  1. To people interested in canals and locks, I highly recommend “Great Canal Journeys” on Amazon (the one with Faulty Towers lady and her husband). The Falkirk Wheel makes a triumphant guest appearance in one of the later seasons.

  2. The big problem appears to be the seals between the moving and fixed sections. Whatever they leak has to be made up from the upper canal. But it’s less than the loss from a series of locks, even with recovery ponds (or whatever they are properly called).

  3. That is cool.

    Also, we need one in an amusement park.

    I’m surprised Japan doesn’t have one, but they get a lot of small canoe traffic on their rivers/canals with locks.

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