This is the third in a series about the six classical simple machines.
Some of us (and, as it turns out, the ancient Greeks would be included in this group) might not even consider the inclined plane to be a machine at all. Really, it just sits there. The moving part is the load that you put on it, but without it, not much. You don’t even have to build an inclined plane, really, just pull a wagon up a small hill and you’re done.
But let’s not forget the Egyptian pyramids, or moving trucks, which are the first two (and perhaps most important) examples of inclined plane mechanics that come to mind. There are a whole bunch of theories on how the pyramids in Egypt were constructed, and there are plenty of discrepancies on who actually did the building (slaves? skilled workers? foreigners?), how the stone was dragged and moved, and what type of ramp was used to do the heavy lifting, as it were. But we can say with almost certainty that inclined planes made the trip up to the top somewhat easier (if there is any way to describe the movement of a four-thousand-pound stone “easy”).
And how else to get a wooden china cabinet up into a moving truck (a china cabinet whose door you did not tape shut, which meant the slamming of the door into your head every few seconds) without that fold-up ramp that makes you feel like you’re struggling up a small narrow mountain every single time you go up it?
I say these things, but I also can’t help noting that the inclined plane is the least glamorous of the simple machines. I’m not denying its usefulness, but one cannot help but admit that it has sort of a passivity not usually associated with machines. However, if you’d like to make a case for the inclined plane (and why wouldn’t you?) you might note that escalators are inclined planes. Well, now, we’re talking. What could be more thrilling (seriously, one of my favorite things about Washington D.C. is the long long steep escalator that takes you down into the Dupont Circle Metro Station) than an escalator.
Not long ago, when my daughters and I were in New York City and on an endless and ridiculous quest for sandals (In the middle of the summer! I know! We were like two seasons off!), in a sudden burst of brilliance I thought of Macy’s (and like an old friend, Macy’s came through!). It turns out that Macy’s still has some of the old wooden escalators that I remembered from my youth, which thrilled both my girls and me (as my younger daughter clutched my hand with a kind of enthralled panic), and made me feel that not everything in New York had turned supermodern and shiny. Escalators can do that, I suppose.
But I feel compelled to point out here that the passivity of the inclined plane transfers right over to the passengers when speaking of escalators. I mean, when we’re on an escalator, actual stairs are happening, but we’re just kind of letting them happen. In the London Underground, if you’re not going to walk up or down the escalators, but plan to just stand there, you need to stand on the right, and if you do not follow this rule, you will be in some serious trouble. Here, in the United States, most people just kind of stand on escalators no matter what. It’s just how we do things.
Which brings us right back to the inclined plane, proud and humble, passive yet strong, putting the simple back into simple machine. You may not be the most obvious machine, i.p., but you are all ours.
(And now, the wedge!)