A Measurement of the Weight of the World: Then and Now, by Carolyn Kennett, FRAS

Descending ladders into the mine to seek a suitable sub-surface location to run the experiment to measure the density of the Earth. Photograph credit: © Carolyn Kennett, 2021

How did we weigh the Earth (and why did this go beyond simple curiosity)? This may be a question people asked themselves during childhood, and have not considered since. Yet it is a question a small group of scientists, including myself, have returned to as we research experiments conducted in the 1820s in a Cornish mine to measure the acceleration due to gravity of the Earth.

In 2022 it is our intention to re-create the mine experiments by building a replica Kater invariable pendulum and taking it down a Victorian mine in west Cornwall to make measurements of gravity. We will set the pendulum in two locations, one overground and one underground, and time the swing of the pendulum in both locations. The difference in the rate allows us to calculate the amount of gravitational pull on the pendulum, as the underground pendulum will swing at a slower rate. The original experiment was conducted by George Biddell Airy and William Whewell in the deepest mine in England, Dolcoath. This has unfortunately closed and the lower recesses are flooded, so we are using a mine named Rosevale, which gives us a difference of 250 metres between the overground and underground stations. Although Rosevale is not as deep as Dolcoath (700 metres at the time of the original experiment), it gives the opportunity to explore how the experiment was conducted in what can only be described as less than ideal conditions. Mines are dirty places which can be excessively damp and hot. During the original experiment the scientists would have had to contend with vibrations and noise from the working environment, making their achievements all the more significant.

Why is this all important now you may ask? Yes, simple curiosity does play into this but we find ourselves in a time when the power of gravity is something we have learnt to manipulate and overcome. There are frequent launches into space and discussions of journeys to far-flung destinations such as Mars. Without the arduous and at times dangerous early experimentations into measuring the gravity of the Earth untaken by Airy, Whewell and others we could still be stuck without the knowledge to reach beyond our own planet. Therefore we think it is the perfect time to highlight the work they undertook and their achievements in what was an important building block for us to travel into space. Details of the actual experiment itself, and the results obtained, will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Society’s Bulletin.

For more information see: https://archaeoastronomycornwall.com/

This experiment has been part-funded by a SIS grant. For more information on the grants we offer, click here.

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