Home     Mission    Building    Staff    Events    Get Involved    Store    Education     Resources     Media Room     Contact    



In physics, a force is any interaction that, when unopposed, will change the motion of an object. A force can cause an object with mass to change its velocity (which includes to begin moving from a state of rest), i.e., to accelerate. Force can also be described intuitively as a push or a pull. A force has both magnitude and direction, making it a vector quantity. It is measured in the SI unit of newtons and represented by the symbol F.

Philosophers in antiquity used the concept of force in the study of stationary and moving objects and simple machines, but thinkers such as Aristotle and Archimedes retained fundamental errors in understanding force. In part this was due to an incomplete understanding of the sometimes non-obvious force of friction, and a consequently inadequate view of the nature of natural motion. A fundamental error was the belief that a force is required to maintain motion, even at a constant velocity. Most of the previous misunderstandings about motion and force were eventually corrected by Galileo Galilei and Sir Isaac Newton. With his mathematical insight, Sir Isaac Newton formulated laws of motion that were not improved for nearly three hundred years. By the early 20th century, Einstein developed a theory of relativity that correctly predicted the action of forces on objects with increasing momenta near the speed of light, and also provided insight into the forces produced by gravitation and inertia.

Since antiquity the concept of force has been recognized as integral to the functioning of each of the simple machines. The mechanical advantage given by a simple machine allowed for less force to be used in exchange for that force acting over a greater distance for the same amount of work. Analysis of the characteristics of forces ultimately culminated in the work of Archimedes who was especially famous for formulating a treatment of buoyant forces inherent in fluids.

The shortcomings of Aristotelian physics would not be fully corrected until the 17th century work of Galileo Galilei, who was influenced by the late medieval idea that objects in forced motion carried an innate force of impetus. Galileo constructed an experiment in which stones and cannonballs were both rolled down an incline to disprove the Aristotelian theory of motion. He showed that the bodies were accelerated by gravity to an extent that was independent of their mass and argued that objects retain their velocity unless acted on by a force, for example friction.

For instance, while traveling in a moving vehicle at a constant velocity, the laws of physics do not change as a result of its motion. If a person riding within the vehicle throws a ball straight up, that person will observe it rise vertically and fall vertically and not have to apply a force in the direction the vehicle is moving. Another person, observing the moving vehicle pass by, would observe the ball follow a curving parabolic path in the same direction as the motion of the vehicle. It is the inertia of the ball associated with its constant velocity in the direction of the vehicle's motion that ensures the ball continues to move forward even as it is thrown up and falls back down. From the perspective of the person in the car, the vehicle and everything inside of it is at rest: It is the outside world that is moving with a constant speed in the opposite direction of the vehicle. Since there is no experiment that can distinguish whether it is the vehicle that is at rest or the outside world that is at rest, the two situations are considered to be physically indistinguishable. Inertia therefore applies equally well to constant velocity motion as it does to rest.

Since forces are perceived as pushes or pulls, this can provide an intuitive understanding for describing forces.[3] As with other physical concepts (e.g. temperature), the intuitive understanding of forces is quantified using precise operational definitions that are consistent with direct observations and compared to a standard measurement scale. Through experimentation, it is determined that laboratory measurements of forces are fully consistent with the conceptual definition of force offered by Newtonian mechanics.

A static equilibrium between two forces is the most usual way of measuring forces, using simple devices such as weighing scales and spring balances. For example, an object suspended on a vertical spring scale experiences the force of gravity acting on the object balanced by a force applied by the "spring reaction force", which equals the object's weight. Using such tools, some quantitative force laws were discovered: that the force of gravity is proportional to volume for objects of constant density (widely exploited for millennia to define standard weights); Archimedes' principle for buoyancy; Archimedes' analysis of the lever; Boyle's law for gas pressure; and Hooke's law for springs. These were all formulated and experimentally verified before Isaac Newton expounded his Three Laws of Motion.

Missouri Civil War Museum

- -