The idea that a machine can be decomposed into simple movable elements led Archimedes to define the lever, pulley and screw as simple machines. By the time of the Renaissance this list increased to include the wheel and axle, wedge and inclined plane. The modern approach to characterizing machines focusses on the components that allow movement, known as joints.
Wedge (hand axe): Perhaps the first example of a device designed to manage power is the hand axe, also see biface and Olorgesailie. A hand axe is made by chipping stone, generally flint, to form a bifacial edge, or wedge. A wedge is a simple machine that transforms lateral force and movement of the tool into a transverse splitting force and movement of the workpiece. The available power is limited by the effort of the person using the tool, but because power is the product of force and movement, the wedge amplifies the force by reducing the movement. This amplification, or mechanical advantage is the ratio of the input speed to output speed. For a wedge this is given by 1/tanα, where α is the tip angle. The faces of a wedge are modeled as straight lines to form a sliding or prismatic joint.
Lever: The lever is another important and simple device for managing power. This is a body that pivots on a fulcrum. Because the velocity of a point farther from the pivot is greater than the velocity of a point near the pivot, forces applied far from the pivot are amplified near the pivot by the associated decrease in speed. If a is the distance from the pivot to the point where the input force is applied and b is the distance to the point where the output force is applied, then a/b is the mechanical advantage of the lever. The fulcrum of a lever is modeled as a hinged or revolute joint.
Wheel: The wheel is clearly an important early machine, such as the chariot. A wheel uses the law of the lever to reduce the force needed to overcome friction when pulling a load. To see this notice that the friction associated with pulling a load on the ground is approximately the same as the friction in a simple bearing that supports the load on the axle of a wheel. However, the wheel forms a lever that magnifies the pulling force so that it overcomes the frictional resistance in the bearing.
Illustration of a Four-bar linkage from Kinematics of Machinery, 1876
Illustration of a four-bar linkage from The Kinematics of Machinery, 1876
The classification of simple machines to provide a strategy for the design of new machines was developed by Franz Reuleaux, who collected and studied over 800 elementary machines. He recognized that the classical simple machines can be separated into the lever, pulley and wheel and axle that are formed by a body rotating about a hinge, and the inclined plane, wedge and screw that are similarly a block sliding on a flat surface.
Simple machines are elementary examples of kinematic chains or linkages that are used to model mechanical systems ranging from the steam engine to robot manipulators. The bearings that form the fulcrum of a lever and that allow the wheel and axle and pulleys to rotate are examples of a kinematic pair called a hinged joint. Similarly, the flat surface of an inclined plane and wedge are examples of the kinematic pair called a sliding joint. The screw is usually identified as its own kinematic pair called a helical joint.
This realization shows that it is the joints, or the connections that provide movement, that are the primary elements of a machine. Starting with four types of joints, the rotary joint, sliding joint, cam joint and gear joint, and related connections such as cables and belts, it is possible to understand a machine as an assembly of solid parts that connect these joints called a mechanism .
Two levers, or cranks, are combined into a planar four-bar linkage by attaching a link that connects the output of one crank to the input of another. Additional links can be attached to form a six-bar linkage or in series to form a robot.
Modern machines are systems consisting of (i) a power source and actuators that generate forces and movement, (ii) a system of mechanisms that shape the actuator input to achieve a specific application of output forces and movement, (iii) a controller with sensors that compare the output to a performance goal and then directs the actuator input, and (iv) an interface to an operator consisting of levers, switches, and displays.
This can be seen in Watt's steam engine (see the illustration) in which the power is provided by steam expanding to drive the piston. The walking beam, coupler and crank transform the linear movement of the piston into rotation of the output pulley. Finally, the pulley rotation drives the flyball governor which controls the valve for the steam input to the piston cylinder.
The adjective "mechanical" refers to skill in the practical application of an art or science, as well as relating to or caused by movement, physical forces, properties or agents such as is dealt with by mechanics. Similarly Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines "mechanical" as relating to machinery or tools.
Power flow through a machine provides a way to understand the performance of devices ranging from levers and gear trains to automobiles and robotic systems. The German mechanician Franz Reuleaux wrote, "a machine is a combination of resistant bodies so arranged that by their means the mechanical forces of nature can be compelled to do work accompanied by certain determinate motion." Notice that forces and motion combine to define power.
More recently, Uicker et al. stated that a machine is "a device for applying power or changing its direction." McCarthy and Soh describe a machine as a system that "generally consists of a power source and a mechanism for the controlled use of this power."