Newton's cradle

Newton's cradle

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Newton's cradle, named after Sir Isaac Newton
Isaac Newton
Sir Isaac Newton PRS was an English physicist, mathematician, astronomer, natural philosopher, alchemist, and theologian, who has been "considered by many to be the greatest and most influential scientist who ever lived."...

, is a device that demonstrates conservation of momentum and energy
Conservation of energy
The nineteenth century law of conservation of energy is a law of physics. It states that the total amount of energy in an isolated system remains constant over time. The total energy is said to be conserved over time...

 via a series of swinging spheres. When one on the end is lifted and released, the resulting force travels through the line and pushes the last one upward. The device is also known as an executive ball clicker, Newton's balls, Newton's pendulum, or Newtonian Demonstrator.


A typical Newton's cradle consists of a series of identically sized metal balls suspended in a metal frame so that they are just touching each other at rest. Each ball is attached to the frame by two wires of equal length angled away from each other. This restricts the pendulums' movements to the same plane.


If one ball is pulled away and is let to fall, it strikes the first ball in the series and comes to nearly a dead stop. The ball on the opposite side acquires most of the velocity and almost instantly swings in an arc almost as high as the release height of the first ball. This shows that the final ball receives most of the energy and momentum that was in the first ball.
The impact produces a shock wave that propagates through the intermediate balls. Any efficiently elastic material such as steel will do this as long as the kinetic energy is temporarily stored as potential energy in the compression of the material rather than being lost as heat.

Intrigue is provided by starting more than one ball in motion. With two balls, exactly two balls on the opposite side swing out and back. More than half the balls can be set in motion. For example, three out of five balls will result in the central ball swinging without any apparent interruption.

While the symmetry is satisfying, why doesn't the initial ball (or balls) bounce back instead of imparting nearly all the momentum and energy to the last ball (or balls)? The simple equations used for the conservation of kinetic energy and conservation of momentum can show this is a possible solution, but they can't be used to predict the final velocities when there are 3 or more balls in a cradle because they provide only 2 equations to find the 3 or more unknowns (velocities of the balls). They give an infinite number of possible solutions if the system of balls is not examined in more detail.

Physics explanation

Newton's cradle can be modeled with simple physics and minor errors if it is incorrectly assumed the balls always collide in pairs. If one ball strikes 4 stationary balls that are already touching, the simplification is unable to explain the resulting movements in all 5 balls, which are not due to friction losses. The simplification overestimates the kinetic energy in the 5th ball by 2.2%. All the animations in this article show idealized action (simple solution) that only occurs if the balls are not touching initially and only collide in pairs.

Simple solution

The conservation of momentum (mass x velocity) and kinetic energy (0.5 x mass x velocity^2) can be used to find the resulting velocities for 2 colliding elastic balls (see elastic collision
Elastic collision
An elastic collision is an encounter between two bodies in which the total kinetic energy of the two bodies after the encounter is equal to their total kinetic energy before the encounter...

). For 3 or more balls, the velocities can be calculated in the same way if the collisions are a sequence of separate collisions between pairs. In Newton's cradle, all the balls weigh the same, so the solution for a colliding pair is that the "moving" ball stops relative to the "stationary" one, and the stationary one picks up all the other's velocity (and therefore all the momentum and energy). If both are "moving", you can pick one to be your "stationary" frame of reference. This simple and interesting effect from two identical elastic colliding spheres is the basis of the cradle and gives an approximate solution to all its action without needing to use math to solve the momentum and energy equations. For example, when 2 balls separated by a very small distance are dropped and strike 3 stationary balls the action is as follows: The 1st ball to strike (the 2nd ball in the cradle) transfers its velocity to the 3rd ball and stops. The 3rd ball then transfers the velocity to the 4th ball and stops, and then the 4th to the 5th ball. Right behind this sequence is the 1st ball transferring its velocity to the 2nd ball that had just been stopped, and the sequence repeats immediately and imperceptibly behind the 1st sequence, ejecting the 4th ball right behind the 5th ball with the same microscopic separation that was between the two initial striking balls. If the two initial balls had been microscopically welded together, the initial strike would be the same as one ball having twice the weight and this results in only the last ball moving away much faster than the others in both theory and practice, so the initial separation is important.

When the simple solution applies, the balls more efficiently transfer the velocity from one ball to the next, maintaining the interesting effect. So contrary to intuition, the effects are more noticeable when the balls are not touching and therefore more closely follow independent collisions.

When simple solution applies

In order for the simple solution to theoretically apply, no pair in the midst of colliding can touch a 3rd ball. This is because applying the two conservation equations to 3 or more balls in a single collision results in many possible solutions.

"Touching" in this discussion means when a ball is still compressed on one side during a collision, it begins compression on the other side from the next collision. So "touching" may include small initial separations, which will need the complete Hertzian solution described below. If the separations are large enough to prevent simultaneous collisions, the Hertzian differential equations simplify to the case of independent collision pairs.

Small steel balls work well because they remain efficiently elastic (less heat loss) under strong strikes and hardly compress (up to about 30 microns in a small Newton's cradle). The small, stiff compressions mean they occur rapidly (less than 200 microseconds), so steel balls are more likely to complete a collision before touching a nearby 3rd ball. So steel increases the time during the cradle's operation that the simple solution applies. Softer elastic balls require a larger separation in order to maximize the interesting effect from pair-wise collisions. For example, when 2 balls strike, there needs to be about 1/2 mm separation for rubber balls much in order to get the 4th and 5th balls to eject with nearly the same velocity, but only half the width of a hair for steel balls.

The extra variables needed to determine the solution for 3 or more simultaneously colliding elastic balls are the relative compressibilities of the colliding surfaces. For example, 5 balls have 4 colliding points and scaling (dividing) 3 of the compressibilities by the 4th will give the 3 extra variables needed (in addition to the two conservation equations) to solve for all 5 post-collision velocities. The compressions of the surfaces are interacting in a way that makes a deterministic algebraic solution difficult to find. Numerical step-wise solutions to the differential equations have been used.

More complete solution

Determining the velocities for the case of 1 ball striking 4 "touching" balls is found by modeling the balls as weights with non-traditional springs on their colliding surface. Steel is elastic and follows Hook's force law for springs, F=k*x, but because the area of contact for a sphere increases as the force increases, colliding elastic balls will follow Hertz's adjustment to Hook's law, F=k*x^1.5. This and Newton's law for motion (F=m*a) are applied to each ball, giving 5 simple but interdependent ("touching") differential equations that are solved numerically. When the 5th ball begins accelerating, it is receiving momentum and energy from the 3rd and 4th balls through the spring action of their compressed surfaces. For identical elastic balls of any type, 40% to 50% of the kinetic energy of the initial ball is stored in the ball surfaces as potential energy for most of the collision process. 13% of the initial velocity is imparted to the 4th ball (which can be seen as a 3.3 degree movement if the 5th ball moves out 25 degrees) and there is a slight reverse velocity in the first 3 balls, −7% in the first ball. This separates the balls, but they will come back together just before the 5th ball returns making a determination of "touching" during subsequent collisions complex. Stationary steel balls weighing 100 grams (with a strike speed of 1 m/s) need to be separated by at least 10 microns if they are to be modeled as simple independent collisions. The differential equations with the initial separations are needed if there is less than 10 micron separation, a higher strike speed, or heavier balls.

The Hertzian differential equations predict that if 2 balls strike 3, the 5th and 4th balls will leave with velocities of 1.14 and 0.80 times the initial velocity. This is 2.03 times more kinetic energy in the 5th ball than the 4th ball, which means the 5th ball should swing twice as high as the 4th ball. But in a real Newton's cradle the 4th ball swings out as far as the 5th ball. In order to explain the difference between theory and experiment, the 2 striking balls must have at least 20 microns separation (given steel, 100 g, and 1 m/s). This shows that in the common case of steel balls, unnoticed separations can be important and must be included in the Hertzian differential equations, or the simple solution may come out more accurate.

Gravity and the pendulum action influence the middle balls to return near the center positions at nearly the same time in subsequent collisions. This and heat and friction losses are influences that can be included in the Hertzian equations to make them more general and for subsequent collisions.

Heat and friction losses

This discussion has assumed there are no heat losses from the balls striking each other or friction losses from air resistance and the strings. These energy losses are why the balls eventually come to a stop. The higher weight of steel reduces the relative effect of air resistance. The size of the steel balls is limited because the collisions may exceed the elastic limit of the steel, deforming it and causing heat losses.
The principle demonstrated by the device, the law of impacts between bodies, was first demonstrated by the French physicist
A physicist is a scientist who studies or practices physics. Physicists study a wide range of physical phenomena in many branches of physics spanning all length scales: from sub-atomic particles of which all ordinary matter is made to the behavior of the material Universe as a whole...

 Abbé Mariotte
Edme Mariotte
Edme Mariotte was a French physicist and priest.- Biography :Edme Mariotte was the youngest son of Simon Mariotte, administrator at the district Til-Châtel , and Catherine Denisot . His parents lived in Til-Châtel and had 4 other children: Jean, Denise, Claude, and Catharine...

 in the 17th century.
Newton acknowledged Mariotte's work, among that of others, in his Principia.


The most common application is that of a desktop executive toy
Executive toy
An executive toy is a novelty item that is usually a small mechanical gadget placed on the desk of a corporate executive or other office workers...

. A less common use is as an educational aid, where a tutor explains what is happening or challenges students to do so.

Invention and design

There is much confusion over the origins of the modern 'Newton's cradle'. An unknown designer in Canada has been credited, without any substantiating evidence, as being the first to name and make this popular executive toy
Executive toy
An executive toy is a novelty item that is usually a small mechanical gadget placed on the desk of a corporate executive or other office workers...

. However in early 1967, an English actor, Simon Prebble
Simon Prebble
Simon Prebble is an English actor and narrator.-Early life:Born and raised in Croydon, England, Simon Micawber Prebble is the son of the novelist, screenwriter and historian John Prebble and fashion artist Betty Prebble...

, coined the name 'Newton's cradle' (now used generically) for his iconic wooden version manufactured by his company, Scientific Demonstrations Ltd . After some initial resistance from uncomprehending retailers, they were first sold by Harrods
Harrods is an upmarket department store located in Brompton Road in Brompton, in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, London. The Harrods brand also applies to other enterprises undertaken by the Harrods group of companies including Harrods Bank, Harrods Estates, Harrods Aviation and Air...

 of London thus creating the start of an enduring market for executive toys. Later a very successful chrome design for the Carnaby Street store Gear was created by the sculptor and future film director Richard Loncraine
Richard Loncraine
Richard Loncraine is a British film and television director.Loncraine received early training in the features department of the BBC, including a season directing items for Tomorrow's World...


The largest cradle device in the world was designed by Mythbusters
MythBusters is a science entertainment TV program created and produced by Beyond Television Productions for the Discovery Channel. The series is screened by numerous international broadcasters, including Discovery Channel Australia, Discovery Channel Latin America, Discovery Channel Canada, Quest...

, and consists of five 1-ton concrete and steel rebar
A rebar , also known as reinforcing steel, reinforcement steel, rerod, or a deformed bar, is a common steel bar, and is commonly used as a tensioning device in reinforced concrete and reinforced masonry structures holding the concrete in compression...

-filled buoys suspended from a steel truss. The buoys also had a steel plate inserted in between their two halves to act as a "contact point" for transferring the energy; this cradle device did not function well. A smaller scale version constructed by them consists of five 6" chrome steel ball bearings, each weighing 33 pounds, and is nearly as efficient as a desktop model.

The cradle device with the largest diameter collision balls on public display, was on display for more than a year in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Milwaukee is the largest city in the U.S. state of Wisconsin, the 28th most populous city in the United States and 39th most populous region in the United States. It is the county seat of Milwaukee County and is located on the southwestern shore of Lake Michigan. According to 2010 census data, the...

 at retail store American Science and Surplus
American Science and Surplus
American Science and Surplus is a seller of surplus and educational goods, many of which are obscure or odd. AS&S is also known for its humorous, hand drawn catalogs. Items range from oscilloscopes to reproduction fossils, Soviet military surplus parts and radio-controlled toy rats...

. Each ball was an inflatable exercise ball 26" in diameter (enclosed in cage of steel rings), and was supported from the ceiling using extremely strong magnets. It was recently taken down due to its need for frequent maintenance.


  • F. Herrmann, P. Schmälzle: A simple explanation of a well-known collision experiment, Am. J. Phys. 49, 761 (1981)
  • F. Herrmann, M. Seitz: How does the ball-chain work?, Am. J. Phys. 50, 977 (1982)
  • B. Brogliato: Nonsmooth Mechanics. Models, Dynamics and Control, Springer, 2nd Edition, 1999.

External links