Popular Science Monthly/Volume 3/October 1873/Sympathetic Vibrations in Machinery




AT the meeting of this Association in Burlington, I showed some experiments in illustration of the optical method of making sensible the vibrations of the column of air in an organ-pipe. At the Chicago meeting I demonstrated the way in which the vibrations of strings could be studied by the eye in place of the ear, when these strings were attached to tuning-forks with which they could vibrate in sympathy; substituting for the small forks, originally used by Melde, a colossal tuning-fork, the prongs of which were placed between the poles of a powerful electro-magnet. This fork, which interrupted the battery current, at the proper time, by its own motion, was able to put a heavy cord, thirty feet in length, in the most energetic vibration, and for an indefinite time. I propose, at the present time, to speak of those sympathetic vibrations which are pitched so low as not to come within the limits of human ears, but which are felt rather than heard, and to show how they may be seen as well as felt.

All structures, large or small, simple or complex, have a definite rate of vibration, depending on their materials, size, and shape, and as fixed as the fundamental note of a musical cord. They may also vibrate in parts, as the cord does, and thus be capable of various increasing rates of vibration, which constitute their harmonics. If one body vibrates, all others in the neighborhood will respond, if the rate of vibration in the first agrees with their own principal or secondary rates of vibration, even when no more substantial bond than the air unites a body with its neighbors. In this way, mechanical disturbances, harmless in their origin, assume a troublesome and perhaps a dangerous character, when they enter bodies all too ready to move at the required rate, and sometimes beyond the sphere of their stability.

When the bridge at Colebrooke Dale (the first iron bridge in the world) was building, a fiddler came along and said to the workmen that he could fiddle their bridge down. The builders thought this boast a fiddle-de-dee, and invited the itinerant musician to fiddle away to his heart's content. One note after another was struck upon the strings until one was found with which the bridge was in sympathy. When the bridge began to shake violently, the incredulous workmen were alarmed at the unexpected result, and ordered the fiddler to stop.

At one time, considerable annoyance was experienced in one of the mills in Lowell, because the walls of the building and the floors were violently shaken by the machinery: so much so that, on certain days, a pail of water would be nearly emptied of its contents, while on other days all was quiet. Upon investigation it appeared that the building shook in response to the motion of the machinery only when that moved at a particular rate, coinciding with one of the harmonics of the structure; and the simple remedy for the trouble consisted in making the machinery move at a little more or a little less speed, so as to put it out of time with the building.

We can easily believe that, in many cases, these violent vibrations will loosen the cement and derange the parts of a building, so that it may afterward fall under the pressure of a weight which otherwise it was fully able to bear, and at a time, possibly, when the machinery is not in motion; and this may have something to do with such accidents as that which happened to the Pemberton Mills in Lawrence. Large trees are uprooted in powerful gales, because the wind comes in gusts; and, if these gusts happen to be timed in accordance with the natural swing of the tree, the effect is irresistible. The slow vibrations which proceed from the largest pipes of a large organ, and which are below the range of musical sounds, are able to shake the walls and floors of a building so as to be felt, if not heard, thereby furnishing a background of noise on which the true musical sounds may be projected.

We have here the reason of the rule observed by marching armies when they cross a bridge; viz., to stop the music, break step, and open column, lest the measured cadence of a condensed mass of men should urge the bridge to vibrate beyond its sphere of cohesion. A neglect of this rule has led to serious accidents. The Broughton bridge, near Manchester, gave way beneath the measured tread of only sixty men who were marching over it. The celebrated engineer, Robert Stephenson, has remarked[2] that there is not so much danger to a bridge, when it is crowded with men or cattle, or if cavalry are passing over it, as when men go over it in marching order. A chain-bridge crosses the river Dordogne on the road to Bordeaux. One of the Stephensons passed over it in 1845, and was so much struck with its defects, although it had been recently erected, that he notified the authorities in regard to them. A few years afterward it gave way when troops were marching over it.[3]

A few years ago, a terrible disaster befell a battalion of French infantry, while crossing the suspension-bridge at Angers, in France. Reiterated warnings were given to the troops to break into sections, as is usually done. But the rain was falling heavily, and, in the hurry of the moment, the orders were disregarded. The bridge, which was only twelve years old, and which had been repaired the year before at a cost of $7,000, fell, and 280 dead bodies were found, besides many who were wounded. Among the killed or drowned were the chief of battalion and four other officers. Many of the guns were bent double, and one musket pierced completely through the body of a soldier. The wholesale slaughter at the bridge of Beresina, in Russia, when Napoleon was retreating from Moscow, in 1812, and his troops crowded upon the bridge and broke it, furnishes a fitting parallel to this great calamity.

"When Galileo set a pendulum in strong vibration by blowing on it whenever it was moving away from his mouth, he gave a good illustration of the way in which small but regularly-repeated disturbances grow into consequence. Tyndall tells us that the Swiss muleteers tie up the bells of the mules, for fear that the tinkle should bring an avalanche down. The breaking of a drinking-glass by the human voice, when its fundamental note is sounded, is a well-authenticated feat; and Chladni mentions an innkeeper who frequently repeated the experiment for the entertainment of his guests and his own. profit. The nightingale is said to kill by the power of its notes. The bark of a dog is able to call forth a response from certain strings of the piano. And a curious passage has been pointed out in the Talmud, which discusses the indemnity to be claimed when a vessel is broken by the voice of a domestic animal. If we enter the domain of music, there is no end to the illustrations which might be given of these sympathetic vibrations. They play a conspicuous part in most musical instruments, and the sounds which these instruments produce would be meagre and ineffective without them.

In the case of vibrations which are simply mechanical, without being audible, or at any rate musical, the following ocular demonstration may be given: A train of wheels, set in motion by a strong spring wound up in a drum, causes an horizontal spindle to revolve with great velocity. Two pieces of apparatus like this are placed at the opposite sides of a room. On the ends of the spindles which face one another are attached buttons about an inch in diameter. The two ends of a piece of white tape are fastened to the rims of these buttons. When the spindles, with the attached buttons, revolve, the two ends of the tape revolve, and in such directions as to prevent the tape from twisting, unless the velocities are different. Even if the two trains of wheels move with unequal velocities, when independent of each other, the motions tend to uniformity when the two spindles are connected by the tape. Now, by moving slightly the apparatus at one end of the room, the tape may be tightened or loosened. If the tape is tightened, its rate of vibration is increased, and, at the same time, the velocity of the spindles is diminished on account of the greater resistance. If the tape is slackened, its rate of vibration is less, and the velocity of the spindles is greater. By this change we can readily bring the fundamental vibration of the tape into unison with the machinery, and then the tape responds by a vibration of great amplitude, visible to all beholders. If we begin gradually to loosen the tape, it soon ceases to respond, on account of the twofold effect already described, until the time comes when the velocity of the machinery accords with the first harmonic of the tape, and the latter divides beautifully into two vibrating segments with a node at the middle. As the tension slowly diminishes, the different harmonics are successively developed, until finally the tape is broken up into numerous segments only an inch or two in length. The eye is as much delighted by this visible music as the ear could be if the vibrations were audible; and the optical demonstration has this advantage, that all may see, while few have musical ears. A tape is preferred to a cord in this experiment, because it is better seen, and any accidental twist it may acquire is less troublesome.

  1. From the Proceedings of the Twenty-first Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
  2. Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, vol. v., p. 255.
  3. Smiles's "Life of Stephenson," p. 390.