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Maxwell_-_On_A_Dynamical_Top - On a Dynamical Top for...

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On a Dynamical Top, for exhibiting the phenomena of the motion of a system of invariable form about a fixed point, with some suggestions as to the Earth’s motion James Clerk Maxwell [From the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh , Vol. XXI. Part IV.] (Read 20th April, 1857.) To those who study the progress of exact science, the common spinning-top is a symbol of the labours and the perplexities of men who had successfully threaded the mazes of the planetary motions. The mathematicians of the last age, searching through nature for problems worthy of their analysis, found in this toy of their youth, ample occupation for their highest mathematical powers. No illustration of astronomical precession can be devised more perfect than that presented by a properly balanced top, but yet the motion of rotation has intricacies far exceeding those of the theory of precession. Accordingly, we find Euler and D’Alembert devoting their talent and their patience to the establishment of the laws of the rotation of solid bodies. Lagrange has incorporated his own analysis of the problem with his general treatment of mechanics, and since his time M. Poinsˆ ot has brought the subject under the power of a more searching analysis than that of the calculus, in which ideas take the place of symbols, and intelligible propositions supersede equations. In the practical department of the subject, we must notice the rotatory machine of Bohnenberger, and the nautical top of Troughton. In the first of these instruments we have the model of the Gyroscope, by which Foucault has been able to render visible the effects of the earth’s rotation. The beautiful experiments by which Mr J. Elliot has made the ideas of precession so familiar to us are performed with a top, similar in some respects to Troughton’s, though not borrowed from his. The top which I have the honour to spin before the Society, differs from that of Mr Elliot in having more adjustments, and in being designed to exhibit far more complicated phenomena. The arrangement of these adjustments, so as to produce the desired effects, depends on the mathematical theory of rotation. The method of exhibiting the motion of the axis of rotation, by means of a coloured disc, is essential to the success of these adjustments. This optical contrivance for rendering visible the nature of the rapid motion of the top, and the practical methods of applying the theory of rotation to such an instrument as the one before us, are the grounds on which I bring my instrument and experiments before the Society as my own. 1
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I propose, therefore, in the first place, to give a brief outline of such parts of the theory of rotation as are necessary for the explanation of the phenomena of the top.
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