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Thursday, 9 February 2012

History of the spinning top - How does the spinning top work?

I received a lovely letter this morning from the year 1 pupils at Highters Heath Community School in Birmingham, that are currently studying toys from the past. When I opened the letter, it contained many letters mainly asking how a spinning top works, and does the spinning top contain a spring?

In an attempt to settle these curious minds, let me tell you a little bit about the history of the spinning top, and then how a spinning top works.

The History of the Spinning Top
The spinning top has been in existence for thousands of years. Like many traditional toys, such as marbles, the earliest spinning tops are made from clay, and were discovered in the Middle East as early as 3500 BC, although it is likely that children would have been spinning small rocks or acorns long before. Later wooden spinning tops emerged in around 2000 BC, and early spinning tops made from bone have been found in Europe.  These spinning tops would have been much simpler than many tops found in old fashioned toy shops today, and would have been spun with a twist of the finger.

Different types of Spinning Tops
Twirling top - A twirling top is spun by manually twisting the crown. These were the first type of spinning top to be made, yet they are still popular today as pocket money toys, or in games.

Whip top - A whip top is set into motion and kept spinning by whipping it with a whip. A common toy in the Victorian era, along with the wooden hoop.


Throwing top - A throwing top has a string wrapped around its body which is attached to a stick. When the top is thrown causing the string to be rapidly released from its body, the top spins.


Supported top – A spinning top which is spun with a string while the top is held upright by a support. The gyroscope would be an example of a supported top.

Pump top - A pump top has a crown that is pushed down or pumped several times to create the spin. Usually made from metal, these spinning tops contain a twisted metal rod and a spring inside which make the top spin. Pump tops often have small holes in the sides which cause them to hum, which means they are also known as humming tops.


How a Spinning Top works
Once a top is set spinning, it tends to keep upright, no matter what happens. Given that it is in fact balanced on a very small, sharp point, this may seem surprising. No way will you ever get a pencil to stand upright like that. Why should this be? It is because of what is known as the “Gyroscopic Effect”, which combines the universal laws of inertia (& momentum), friction and gravity, and the transference of potential to kinetic energy.

How a Spinning Top works - In Simple Terms
For the sake of the year 1 students above who asked me this question, I shall attempt to explain the gyroscopic effect in simple terms: -

When  the top is spun, imagine it spinning very slowly, from the side. When the energy is on the right side, the top is heavier that side and tries to fall over, but before it does, the weight has moved to the left side, trying to make it fall that way, so the top stays upright while it spins. Eventually friction between the top and the table make the top spin slower, and if you watch it carefully you will see it wobble from left to right before it falls over and stops.


If you don't understand, or want to know more - Ask your teacher!



Make your own Spinning Top
Why not make your own simple spinning top?
All you need is a piece of card, and a pencil to make your own spinning top.  Simply cut out a circle from the card, and carefully push a pencil through the middle. You could colour the top in bright colours, and then race it against your friends to see who's top spins for the longest.

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