Magnet assisted one way crank

This evening I took a trip by the Museum of Technology in Stockholm. Its somewhat recently undergone a redesign since last I was there maybe 7 years ago and I was interested in seeing how its turned out. General judgement is that it is now absolute heaven for families with small children with lots of novel contraptions and controller less video games while there is a little less on offer with respect to showcasing historical mechanism but still a fair trade.

I had gone primarily to get some stimulus and inspiration for mechanical configurations and mechanism which are simple enough to turn into elementary physics problems but which aren’t completely disjointed from applications. Like the hand crank wheel turning mechanism on a quaint car-like thing where the crank moves a rack back and forth which is linked to an elongated arm connected to the wheel joint.

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The principal novelty however which I would like to point to a little was one I found in a machine that wasn’t even working. It was another crank mechanism where by turning a crank you set in motion a sequence of chains and gears which lifted some balls up to some slides of different curvature illustrating the principles of Brachistochrone problem. Everything about this machine was delightfully improvised which is why the electronics had broken down rendering the thing inoperable but what I want to talk about instead is a curious element in the crank mechanism.

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It is admittedly hard to make out in this image but the odd parts were the two rubber elements which are in contact with eachither in the middle.

When the crank is pushed forward nothing of note happens. The whole axis, rubber parts and all, move together, turn the chains and everything works.

It is when you try to push the crank in the reverse direction that something novel happened. Since the machine isn’t supposed to be run in reverse reasonably there are two possible things that might happen, either there is a ratchet somewhere which prevent reverse motion entirely or you put in something similar to a freewheel that the crank becomes disengaged and you move it backwards with zero resistance.

Neither of those things happened here however. Now at first if you pulled it in the reverse there is a full stop, seemingly there is a rachet somewhere down the line, however if you try to turn the crank back harder the right rubber element somewhat dramatically begins to slip and you can turn back the crank almost freely.

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This feels really really weird when this happens but also oddly familiar. A snapping you shouldn’t encounter in a purely mechanical system. The reason for how these rubber elements stuck together when the torque of the crank was low such as in the forward motion and the gentle reversed motion is that they weren’t sticking together by friction at all. There was pair of magnets embedded in the rubber keeping them together.

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When the torque on these rubber elements becomes too high the magnets are pulled apart and the crank can move backward freely.

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This was just so bafflingly weird this must have been an improvised fix to some problem they realized too late was present in the overall design. My guess is that the problem is that the ratchet preventing backwards motion of the system (not explicitly the crank) is located too far way from the crank somewhere down the line in a way that the reverse torque puts strain on something in the fixture, wood or plastic, which risks breaking if pulled back too hard. This is for children after all and if they can break it they will. The magnets guarantee that the torque on the axis has a manageable maximum at which the magnetic link snaps instead of something else in the machine..