Journalist for Life

Imagine a Ferris wheel, filled with water and boats

FALKIRK, Scotland — There was a time, a couple of centuries ago, when the best way to move people and freight across the land was on canals.

Scotland, surrounded by water on three sides, became the first nation in the world to dig intersecting cross-country canals. They connected the North Sea, near Edinburgh on the east, with the Atlantic Ocean, a few miles to the west of Glasgow.

That was in 1790, and the trip took most of a day, including the 6-10 hours to move through 11 locks needed to raise or lower the boats 115 feet.

But in the next century, an enhanced steam engine greatly cut the transit time — and also opened other routes, on land and sea. The railroad further reduced the need for canals.

Finally, widespread use of the internal combustion engine meant trucks and cars could take people and cargo much faster than could boats.

What had been a busy canal system was largely abandoned in 1933. In the 1960s, it was closed when two major highways were constructed through the canals.

But everything old is new again, and then some.

The national government spent the equivalent of $124-million to eliminate the need for the original 11 locks by creating the world’s first “rotating boat lift.” Opened in May 2002, it is named the Falkirk Wheel, after the middle-of-the-nation town where it was constructed.

The structure is futuristic in appearance, yet it uses an ancient law of physics to operate. Basically, a huge wheel is fixed to an axis, and on either side of the wheel are two boxes that hold water. Each box, called a gondola, is 70 feet long by 21 feet wide.

This is when Archimedes’ Principle comes into use. This states that an item placed in water displaces its own weight; thus one or more boats push out of the gondola an amount of water equivalent in weight to the boat’s weight.

The opposing gondola has the same weight, whether it is water only or also boats. A number of electric motors turn a cleverly designed series of gears that rotate both the large wheel and lesser gears that keep the gondolas level while the big wheel turns.

The gondola on the bottom is filled with water from a basin, and boats glide in before a water-tight door is closed behind them. The gondola at top opens onto an aqueduct that connects through a tunnel to the original, higher canal.

When both gondolas are closed, the wheel rotates — eerily quiet, considering the size of the structure. What was below goes up and what was up comes down.

When the big wheel’s half-rotation is complete, the water doors are opened and the boats glide out, to continue their canal journey in either direction. The cross country canal is about 68 miles long.

Since it opened, thousands of pleasure craft and more than 1-million visitors have come through the gates to watch it happen, with many of them booking rides on the 40-passenger tour boats kept in the basin.

The half-rotation takes about 15 minutes; the tour boats going up send their boats into the 330-foot-long aqueduct, which leads to a 475-foot-long tunnel beneath an ancient Roman wall. From there the tour boats enter a small lake, turn around and come back.

If you go

GETTING THERE: Several trains a day from Edinburgh and Glasgow stop in Falkirk; the ride takes little more than a half-hour. Phone your departure train station for the schedule.

The Falkirk Wheel is on a bus route from Falkirk’s Grahamston and High train stations. The No. 3 Red Line Bus, operated by First Bus, runs about every 15 minutes from stops near both stations to the Wheel site. Or, cabs can be hired at the stations.

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