If you walked into a high-powered corporate office in the late 1970s, early 1980s, the guy behind the desk would probably be smoking like a chimney. And right next to his ashtray would be a little chrome frame with five steel balls hanging from it. As he angrily stubbed out his smoke to yell at you about 80s business matters, he might pull one of those balls back and let it loose, clacking into the other four and creating a hypnotic chain reaction of the edge spheres bouncing out and back in without moving the ones in the middle.
People called it all kinds of things – impact balls, counting balls, the Executive Pacifier – but the actual name is Newton’s Cradle, named after 17th century scientist Sir Isaac Newton. Newton was the guy who outlined many of the essential rules of motion that the physical universe operates under, and also built the first practical reflecting telescope. He was a solid dude with a big brain and civilization would be significantly dumber if he had never been born.
But here’s the kicker: Newton probably didn’t invent Newton’s Cradle. It actually demonstrates a physical principle that had been known decades before he started working and explained by Christiaan Huygens – the conservation of kinetic energy and motion. Simply said, in a closed system, bodies will maintain an amount of momentum upon collision – the total force is transferred between them. Huygens built a series of pendulums to illustrate this principle, and his device was the basis for the modern desk toy version.
So the balls hang motionless from their cords until the bossman’s hand plucks one out and lets it go. It then collides with the next one in the chain and passes on the momentum down the line, until it reaches the ball at the other end. Since that ball has no solid object to pass the transmitted kinetic energy to, it swings out on its tether until gravity pulls it back and starts the cycle again. Remarkably little force is lost to friction or inertia, causing the toy to clack back and forth for much longer than you think it would.
So how did this somewhat opaque physics demonstration turn into a ubiquitous desk toy? It starts with a guy named Simon Prebble. Trained as an actor, Prebble was looking for ways to make extra money in the mid-60s and developed a take on the concept out of wood. He named it “Newton’s Cradle” because the way the strings hung reminded him of cat’s cradle. Department store chain Harrods took delivery of his first production run, and it was an instant hit. Prebble also built a giant-sized version to promote it, but it was dismantled after one of the swinging balls knocked a child unconscious.
Unfortunately for him, he was denied a patent for the Cradle because the patent office claimed he “hadn’t improved on Newton.” That allowed a cagey competitor, sculptor Richard Loncraine, to create his own version. One difference: he made his out of chrome. Cheaper to produce and more modern-looking the chrome Newton’s Cradle quickly became more popular, and Prebble bowed out of the market to focus on a career recording audiobooks. By the early 1970s, the Cradle had ushered in a new era of “executive toys,” things for busy businessmen to fiddle with while they were on the phone.
Since then, Newton’s Cradle has grown to be a part of our collective culture. It’s appeared in numerous movies, including a cute bit in giant monster mashfest Pacific Rim. On an episode of Mythbusters, the crew built a gigantic version of the toy with cranes and wrecking balls, showing that the essential principles of motion remain the same no matter how big it’s scaled to.
And, in keeping with the increasingly virtual nature of the modern workplace, there’s even a Newton’s Cradle app for your iPhone. Modeled with realistic physics simulation, these digitized balls perform the same service as their real-world counterparts – nothing.
So that’s the story of Newton’s Cradle – a useless object, named after the wrong guy, that somehow became a ubiquitous signifier of executive power. Now pull back one of those balls and watch them go.Get your balls in the game! Donate to the Sean Kimerling Foundation to win the battle against testicular cancer.