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Simple Machines

by Ron Kurtus (revised 27 June 2016)

A simple machine is a mechanical device that consists of a minimum of moving parts but yet can create an improvement of the output over the input. The improvement could be creating a mechanical advantage or simply changing the direction of the output. Mechanical advantage is the increase of force, distance or speed from the input value.

Around the 16th century, the classic list of simple machines was determined. The list consisted of the lever, wheel and axle, pulley, inclined plane, wedge, and screw.

These simple machines can be broken into three classifications: lever simple machines, rotating simple machines, and inclined plane simple machines.

Questions you may have include:

This lesson will answer those questions. Useful tool: Units Conversion

Lever simple machines

The lever simply consists of a rod or board that pivots on a fulcrum, creating a mechanical advantage or a change in direction.

(See Levers are Simple Machines)

The lever is a classic simple machine that achieves a mechanical advantage according to the ratio of the output or load arm of the lever divided by the input or effort arm.

Lever is a simple machine

Lever is a simple machine

The mechanical advantage of a lever can concern force, distance, or speed of the output.

(See Mechanical Advantage in Machines)

The efficiency of the lever is very high, since the loss due to friction at the fulcrum is low.

(See Efficiency of Machines)

Rotating simple machines

Rotating simple machines include rollers, wheel and axle, crank, and pulley.


The wheel or roller by itself can make it easier to move objects by overcoming friction.

Wheel and axle

When an axle is added to a wheel, a torque on the axle increases the speed of the outer surface of the wheel. Likewise, turning the wheel from its outer edge increases the force applied from the axle.


A crank is like a wheel and axle. You can push on the handle of a crank, and it will create a twisting force or torque on the axle. This is a variation of the wheel and axle.


A pulley is a wheel and axle, that uses a rope to lift objects. A major purpose of a pulley is to change the direction of the input force. You can pull down one a pulley rope, and the rope will lift the object upward.

Pulley changes direction of force

Pulley changes direction of force

Complex set of pulleys

A complex set up pulleys, such as a block-and-tackle configuration, can result in a mechanical advantage. The question is that if it is a complex set, is it still a simple machine? Probably not.

Inclined plane simple machines

Variations of an inclined plane include a ramp, wedge, and screw.


The inclined plane or ramp makes raising a weight to a given height easier, according to the angle of the incline. Unfortunately, the resistive force of friction from sliding the object on the ramp can negate the mechanical advantage.

Variations of the inclined plane are the wedge and screw.


Although a wedge is considered a simple machine, it is really a special application of an inclined plane.


The screw is really an inclined plane that is wrapped around a shaft. Turning the shaft around its central axis transforms rotational motion and torque into axial motion and force.

A screw can also act like a wedge, forcing itself into a softer material.


Simple machines usually exchange using a smaller force over a greater distance to move a heavy object over a short distance. The work required is the same, but the force required is less. The are also simple machines that help to reduce the resistance of friction or such.

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