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An Elevator for Boats?! Falkirk Wheel, Engineering Marvel

The only rotating boat lift (boat elevator) in the world, the Falkirk Wheel is an engineering marvel.

Designed to look like a Celtic inspired double axe, the Falkirk Wheel is a rotating elevator for boats! Learn all about this incredible piece of engineering.

If you wanted to connect two bodies of water that were at vastly different heights, how would you do it? In Scotland, brilliant engineers built a rotating boat elevator called the Falkirk Wheel – and we got to ride on it while we were living in Edinburgh this summer!

Why Build the Falkirk Wheel?

The Falkirk Wheel links the Union Canal with the Forth and Clyde Canal. This makes it possible to travel between Edinburgh and Glasgow – Scotland’s two largest cities – by boat. Originally, a series of 11 canal locks connected these two canals, but they fell into disrepair and were dismantled in 1933. The Falkirk Wheel re-created this link, in a much more efficient way!

Riding the Falkirk Wheel

At 115 feet high, the Falkirk Wheel is an impressive piece of architecture as well as engineering! My kids were excited to get on the boat, even though (on a summer weekend) it was so packed that we couldn’t even sit together.

Riding the Falkirk Wheel - one of the world's engineering marvels. Learn all about this amazing rotating lift for boats.

We waited for the wheel to rotate into an upright position, and then our boat entered the lower gondola:

An elevator for boats?! Learn all about this engineering marvel.

Riding a boat elevator is a strange sensation! You know how you feel the elevator go up and down? That doesn’t happen in a boat lift, because the water holds everything steady! It feels like you aren’t moving at all. Then you look out the window and realize how tiny the trees, people, and houses have suddenly become!

If you look at the photo above, you can see the system that keeps the gondola level with the ground even as the wheel rotates around. Those Scottish engineers thought of everything!

At the Top of the Falkirk Wheel

There are still two locks to go through to enter the Union Canal after taking the Falkirk Wheel

Once you reach the top of Falkirk Wheel, you make your way through an aqueduct. Then you travel through the Rough Castle tunnel to enter the Union Canal. You can see the two remaining locks that are needed to enter the canal in the photo above. I was a little disappointed when we didn’t actually drive into the canal. I have a thing for canal locks, and this double look looked especially intriguing.

Entering the Falkirk Wheel to descend down 24 meters (79 feet - close to the height of an eight story building!) to the Forth and Clyde Canal

Instead, we made our way back through the tunnel to the aqueduct and then into the gondola to make our way down. See the houses way down below?

We did get to ride back down with the little red boat we ran into at the canal locks. I guess they were just waiting for us to show up so that they could ride down with us. My kids were pretty excited about the little white dog they had on board! The little dog on the boat also had a much better view than we did sitting on a crowded tour boat. I you get the chance to ride on a private boat on the Falkirk Wheel, take it!

Fun STEM themed day out with kids: riding the Falkirk Wheel

Going down is just like going up. You don’t realize you are descending at all, until you look up…

Descending on the Falkirk Wheel

And see the other half of the Falkirk Wheel ascending!

Is Riding the Falkirk Wheel Worth the Price?

Honestly, I’m on the fence about this. The Falkirk Wheel is an engineering wonder, and it’s pretty neat to experience the non-motion of riding it. If you can ride it on a small boat, I say go for it! I felt like the large tour barge didn’t allow for a very good view unless you were lucky enough to get one of the front seats. I was in the very back in a middle seat, where you can’t see very well.

Whether you choose to ride or not, the Falkirk Wheel is well worth a visit. Watching the wheel is an experience in itself, and there is plenty to enjoy from the ground.

How Does the Falkirk Wheel Work?

The 35 meter (115 feet) diameter Falkirk Wheel stays balanced because the two gondolas always weigh the same thanks to Archimedes’ Principle. This perfect balance also means that very little power is required to run the wheel. A smaller wheel system (see the top photo in this post, or the video below) keeps the gondolas parallel to the ground as they rotate. The wheel rotates 180 degrees in five and a half minutes, using only the same amount of electrical power that would be required to boil eight kettles of water.

A More Detailed Description

I recommend this YouTube video for those of you looking for a technically detailed description of how the Falkirk Wheel Works.

Descriptive Overview

This video provides a great descriptive overview of the Falkirk Wheel.

The Falkirk Wheel in Action

And this video provides great footage of the Falkirk Wheel in action.

 An Engineering Challenge for Kids

The Falkirk Wheel is an excellent way to introduce kids to the idea of moving boats between bodies of water. If they had to move a boat up 82 feet to reach the next body of water, how would they do it? Can they build a small replica of the Falkirk Wheel?

If you prefer to start your STEM learning with a smaller project, I have all sorts of fun ideas of ways you can create STEM activities using items you already own.

Do you have an engineering activity that my kids would love? Visit my Facebook page and leave a note, or tag me on Instagram!

MaryAnne lives in Silicon Valley with her Stanford professor husband Mike and their four children. She writes about parenting through education, creativity, and play. Mama Smiles - Joyful Parenting is a space to share crafts, hands on learning activities, and family outings that enrich lives and bring families together.

8 thoughts on “An Elevator for Boats?! Falkirk Wheel, Engineering Marvel”

  1. Elisa | blissful E

    That is awesome! I love that it is elegant in appearance as well as in the simplicity of the mechanism. And how odd that you can’t even feel the motion while traveling up or down! This is just so cool!

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