Lectures on Physics has been derived from Benjamin Crowell's Light and Matter series of free introductory textbooks on physics. See the editorial for more information....

An Elevator

An elevator has a weight of 5000 N. Compare the forces that the cable must exert to raise it at constant velocity, lower it at constant velocity, and just keep it hanging.

Answer: In all three cases the cable must pull up with a force of exactly 5000 N. Most people think you'd need at least a little more than 5000 N to make it go up, and a little less than 5000 N to let it down, but that's incorrect. Extra force from the cable is only necessary for speeding the car up when it starts going up or slowing it down when it finishes going down. Decreased force is needed to speed the car up when it gets going down and to slow it down when it finishes going up. But when the elevator is cruising at constant velocity, Newton's first law says that you just need to cancel the force of the earth's gravity.

To many students, the statement in the example that the cable's upward force "cancels" the earth's downward gravitational force implies that there has been a contest, and the cable's force has won, vanquishing the earth's gravitational force and making it disappear. That is incorrect. Both forces continue to exist, but because they add up numerically to zero, the elevator has no center-of-mass acceleration. We know that both forces continue to exist because they both have side-effects other than their effects on the car's center-ofmass motion. The force acting between the cable and the car continues to produce tension in the cable and keep the cable taut. The earth's gravitational force continues to keep the passengers (whom we are considering as part of the elevator-object) stuck to the floor and to produce internal stresses in the walls of the car, which must hold up the floor.

Last Update: 2009-06-21