Grove City College students, faculty work together to get rare pendulum swinging again

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It's located in the Rockwell Hall of Science and was built into the buildings original design back in the 1930s

GROVE CITY, Pennsylvania (WKBN) – When some students approached James Clem, a professor of physics at Grove City College, about fixing the Foucault Pendulum in the Rockwell Hall of Science, he jumped at the opportunity.

The pendulum sparked Clem’s interest when he began teaching in 2013. He was excited at the prospect of mentoring students as they embarked on the journey to learn how to fix it.

The pendulum hasn’t swung since the late 1990s or early 2000s

“A lot of the effort to do repair back at that timeframe, mid-1990s or so, was done by a former faculty member here by the name of Jim Downey,” Clem said.

According to Clem, the pendulum was built as part of the original building back in the 1930s. He said people hardly knew about it, not to mention that it’s extremely rare to even have one in the first place.

“The pendulum moves back and forth just like a clock pendulum would, but one of the things you’re going to notice, if you stand there and watch for a long time as it’s moving back and forth, that back and forth motion will begin to rotate,” Clem said. “If you’re at the North Pole or the South Pole, it would be precisely 24 hours, once every day, and then that starts to increase as you get closer to the equator, to where it wouldn’t move at all, rotate at all, if you were located at the equator.”

Clem said the pendulum bob was missing, and the circuitry that would keep it swinging was non-existent, so it was more of a novelty. However, when sophomore roommates Mackenzie Gongaware and Grace Barnes noticed it in the fall, that all changed.

“There were a lot of signs and posters on the back of the shaft and one of them said to come back later and kind of see for yourself as to what happens,” Gongaware, who is studying mechanical engineering, said. “We would keep coming back and coming back and coming back and after a couple times of convincing ourselves that maybe something had happened, we did decide that it wasn’t moving and that it was broken.”

Gongaware is studying mechanical engineering and Barnes computer science. Barnes said the circuitry underneath the pendulum was poorly wired, so they worked with the electrical engineering professors to learn more about circuits.

Barnes has studied a lot about magnets, and the two students took what they learned to help them tackle the pendulum repair.

The pendulum rotates in a full circle every 36-and-a-half hours. Once the circuit was repaired, Barnes and Gongaware would have to check it – every 36-and-a-half hours.

Luckily, they had a camera on it that hooked up to their computers so they could check it. Sometimes, that required waking up at 1 a.m. to do so.

“I like to walk by and see people looking in the window and be like, ‘Hey, I fixed that you know,'” Barnes said. “It’s pretty fun and I just see people peering in like, ‘Woah, that’s new. The lights on now.’ So I think that’s pretty cool to see.”

After it started swinging, Clem solicited the help of a freshman in his astronomy class to start working on coding to track the movement of the bob.

“That’s what I want to do with my computer science minor, I want to use it to supplement physics, so it’s a good chance to do that,” said Brynn Graybill, a freshman physics major.

The students turned down getting course credit from Clem for the project because they wanted to satisfy their curiosity on their own terms.

Clem said he’s proud of them for getting it done and for doing it to satisfy their own curiosity.

“And that’s what all good scientists do,” Clem said.

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