Inclined Planes - Simple Machines answers questions

Inclined Plane

Masada ramp
Earth ramp to the fortress at Masada
(Thanks to

May 2016 - An inclined plane is any slope or ramp, like a wheelchair ramp or a slide. The ramp makes it easier to lift something heavy, like a rock. Instead of lifting the rock straight up, you can push it a greater distance, but with less force. The amount of work remains the same. Work is force x distance, so if you increase the distance the rock moves, you can decrease the amount of force you need.

If you make the ramp steeper, you'll have a shorter distance, but it will be harder to push the rock (you'll need more force). If you make the ramp less steep, it will have to be longer, but it will be easier to push the rock. Either way, it's the same amount of work in the end, but you have the choice of doing easier work for a longer time, or harder work for a shorter time.

We call it an "inclined plane" because it is a plane - a flat surface - and it is inclined - sloped, not level. Inclined planes also let you control how fast something goes downhill: object fall faster on a steeper ramp. You could just drop the thing, and let gravity pull it to earth, but maybe you'd like to go slower: you enjoy the speed from going down a slide, but you might break your arm if you just fell from the top of the slide straight down.

person using wheelchair to go down a curb ramp
Wheelchair ramp

All kinds of animals use inclined planes when they choose their path up or down a steep hill, and ants, for example, also use inclined planes in building their anthills. People have used inclined planes since even before they were people, about 200,000 years ago. By the time of Old Kingdom Egypt, about 2500 BC, people were building their own earth ramps to move heavy stones for the Pyramids. The first staircases (a kind of inclined plane, because stairs make it easier to go up than if you had to jump) also go back to the Bronze Age.

A wedge is a particular kind of inclined plane (a wedge is two inclined planes back to back), and a screw is another kind.

Learn by doing: build a ramp from blocks and see how fast objects slide down it when it is steep or when it is less steep.
More about simple machines

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Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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