Cavendish Experiment to Measure Gravitational Constant
by Ron Kurtus (updated 30 May 2023)
The Cavendish Experiment is a clever way to measure the Gravitational Constant that is stated in the Universal Gravitation Equation. The constant was not determined until many years after Isaac Newton first formulated his equation.
This experiment used a torsion balance device to attract lead balls together, measuring the torque on a wire and equating it to the gravitational force between the balls. Then by a complex derivation, the value of G was determined.
Questions you may have include:
- What is the background of the Cavendish Experiment?
- What is the experimental setup?
- What is the derived equation for G?
This lesson will answer those questions. Useful tool: Units Conversion
Background of experiment
Isaac Newton formulated the Universal Gravitation Equation in 1687:
F = GMm/R2
- F is the force of attraction between objects in newtons (N)
- G is the Universal Gravitational Constant in in N-m2/kg2 or m3/kg-s2
- M is the mass of the larger object in kg
- m is the mass of the smaller object in kg
- R is the separation between the centers of mass of the object in meters
After Newton formulated the equation, there really wasn't much interest in G. Most scientists simply considered it a proportionality constant. Also, they were more interested in gravity than in gravitation.
Cavendish performs experiment
In 1798, Henry Cavendish performed an experiment to determine the density of the Earth, which would be useful in astronomical measurements. He used a torsion balance invented by geologist John Mitchell to accurately measure the force of attraction between two masses.
From this measurement, he determined the mass of the Earth and then its density. In Cavendish's published paper on the experiment, he gave the value for the density and mass of the Earth but never mentioned the value for G.
Scientists determine value of G
It wasn't until 1873 that other scientists repeated the experiment and documented the value for G. The value for G implied from Cavendish's experiment was very accurate and within 1% of present-day measurements.
Because his experiment ultimately determined the value for G, Cavendish has been often incorrectly given credit for determining the gravitational constant.
Cavendish experiment setup
The Cavendish experiment uses a torsion balance to measure the weak gravitational force between lead balls. A torsion balance consists of a bar suspended at its middle by a thin wire or fiber. Twisting the wire requires a torque that is a function of the wire width and material.
Gravitational force overcomes twisting resistance
The way it works is that the gravitational force attracting the balls together turns the bar, overcoming twisting resistance—or torque resistance—from the wire. That resistance is a function of angle turned and the torsion coefficient of the wire. At some angle, the torque resistance equals the gravitational force.
Inertia causes oscillation
However, the inertia of the balls causes them to go slightly beyond the equilibrium point and thus create a harmonic oscillation around that point. The oscillation is also measured by the light reflected from the mirror.
The rate of oscillation is then used to determine the spring constant or torsion coefficient of the wire, which is necessary in the final calculation of G.
It is truly a clever experiment.
Cavendish Experiment uses torque to measure Gravitation Constant
Original values and Dimensions
In Cavendish's original experiment, the following values were used:
Mass of large ball M = 158 kg (348 lbs)
Diameter of large ball dM = 30.5 cm (12 in)
Mass of small ball m = 0.73 kg (1.6 lbs)
Diameter of small ball dm = 5 cm (2 in)
Length of rod separating small balls L = 1.86 m (73.3 in)
Separation of large balls L = 1.86 m (73.3 in)
Distance between the centers of the large and small balls R = 0.225 m (8.85 in)
More recent experiments have used other values.
Equation for G
The derived equation for G is:
G = 2π2LθRe2/T2M
- G is the Universal Gravitation Constant
- π is the Greek letter pi = 3.14...
- L is the length of the torsion bar
- θ is the angle the bar turns
- Re is the equilibrium point distance between M and m
- T is the oscillation frequency
- M is the mass of the larger object
(See Derivation of Gravitational Constant from Cavendish Experiment for details.)
The calculated value of G from this experiment is:
G = 6.674*10−11 m3/kg-s2
Since a newton is equivalent to kg-m/s2, G is also defined as:
G = 6.674*10−11 N-m2/kg2
The calculated value for G can then be applied to the Universal Gravitation Equation:
Henry Cavendish performed an experiment to find the density of the Earth. Other scientists used his experimental setup to determine the value of G.
The setup consisted of a torsion balance to attract lead balls together, measuring the torque on a wire and then equating it to the gravitational force between the balls.
Then by a complex derivation, G = 2π2LθRe2/T2M was determined.
Seek to find out the reasons for things
Resources and references
Weighing the Earth in 1798: The Cavendish Experiment - Victoria Chang, Stanford University
Cavendish Experiment - Harvard University Natural Science Lecture Demonstrations
The Cavendish Experiment - Good illustrations of experiment from Leyden Science
Cavendish experiment - Wikipedia
Weighing the Earth - Following the Path of Discovery
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Cavendish Experiment to Measure Gravitational Constant