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How Boomerangs Work
by Tom Harris

When most of us think of boomerangs, we imagine somebody (quite possibly a cartoon character) throwing a banana-shaped stick that eventually turns around and comes right back to the thrower's hand (possibly after hitting another cartoon character in the head). This idea is simply amazing, and as children, our first reaction to such a device was: This stick is obviously possessed with magical powers! Of course, the person or people who discovered the boomerang hadn't actually found a magical stick, but they had come upon an amazing application of some complex laws of physics.

In this edition of HowStuffWorks, we'll break down the physical principles that make boomerangs work, see what happens as a boomerang flies through the air and find out the proper way to throw a boomerang so that it comes back to you. We'll also delve a little into the history of boomerangs to see how they came about in the first place. Boomeranging is an amazing demonstration of scientific principles as well as a terrific sport you can enjoy all by yourself.

What is It?
When we talk about boomerangs, we usually mean the curved devices that return to you when you throw them, but there are actually two different kinds of boomerangs. The kind we're all familiar with, returning boomerangs, are specially crafted, lightweight pieces of wood, plastic or other material. Traditionally, these are basically two wings connected together in one banana-shaped unit, but you can find a number of different boomerang designs available these days, some with three or more wings. Most returning boomerangs measure 1 to 2 feet (30 to 60 cm) across, but there are larger and smaller varieties. When thrown correctly, a returning boomerang flies through the air in a circular path and arrives back at its starting point. Returning boomerangs are not suited for hunting -- they are very hard to aim, and actually hitting a target would stop them from returning to the thrower, pretty much defeating the purpose of the design.

Returning boomerangs evolved out of non-returning boomerangs. These are also curved pieces of wood, but they are usually heavier and longer, typically 3 feet (1 meter) or more across. Non-returning boomerangs do not have the light weight and special wing design that causes returning boomerangs to travel back to the thrower, but their curved shape does cause them to fly easily through the air. Non-returning boomerangs are effective hunting weapons because they are easy to aim and they travel a good distance at a high rate of speed. There is also such a thing as a battle boomerang, which is basically a non-returning boomerang used in hand-to-hand combat.

Why Does It Fly?
If you throw a straight piece of wood that's about the same size as a boomerang, it will simply keep going in one direction, turning end over end, until gravity pulls it to the ground. So the question is, why does changing the shape of that piece of wood make the it stay in the air longer and travel back to you?

The first thing that makes a boomerang different from a regular piece of wood is that it has at least two component parts, whereas a straight piece of wood is only one unit. This makes the boomerang spin about a central point, stabilizing its motion as it travels through the air. Non-returning boomerangs are better throwing weapons than straight sticks because of this stabilizing effect: They travel farther and you can aim them with much greater accuracy.

The returning boomerang has specialized components that make it behave a little differently than an ordinary bent stick. A classic banana-shaped boomerang is simply two wings joined together in a single unit. This is the key to its odd flight path.

The wings are set at a slight tilt and they have an airfoil design -- they are rounded on one side and flat on the other, just like an airplane wing. If you've read How Airplanes Work, then you know that this design gives a wing lift. The air particles move more quickly over the top of the wing than they do along the bottom of the wing, which creates a difference in air pressure. The wing has lift when it moves because there is greater pressure below it than above it.

A boomerang is two wings combined in one unit.

As you can see in the diagram, the two wings are arranged so that the leading edges are facing in the same direction, like the blades of a propeller. At its heart, a boomerang is just a propeller that isn't attached to anything. Propellers, like the ones on the front of an airplane or the top of a helicopter, create a forward force by spinning the blades, which are just little wings, through the air. This force acts on the axis, the central point, of the propeller. To move a vehicle like a plane or helicopter, you just attach it to this axis.

The leading edges of the two wings face in the same direction, like the blades of a propeller.

The classic boomerang's propeller axis is only imaginary, so it obviously isn't attached to anything, but the propeller itself is moved by the forward force of the wings' lift. It would be reasonable to assume, then, that a boomerang would simply fly off in one direction as it spun, just as a plane with spinning propeller will move in one direction. If you held it horizontally when you threw it, as you do with a Frisbee, you would assume that the forward motion would be up because that's the direction the axis is pointing -- the boomerang would fly up into the sky like a helicopter taking off, until it stopped spinning and gravity pulled it down again. If you held it vertically when you threw it, which is the proper way to throw a boomerang, it seems that it would simply fly off to the right or left. But obviously this isn't what happens.

In the next section, we'll see why a boomerang turns and comes back to you.

Why Does It Come Back?
Unlike an airplane or helicopter propeller, which starts spinning while the vehicle is completely still, you throw the boomerang, so that in addition to its spinning propeller motion, it also has the motion of flying through the air.

In the diagram below, you can see that whichever wing is at the top of the spin at any one time ends up moving in the same direction as the forward motion of the throw, while whichever wing is at the bottom of the spin is moving in the opposite direction of the throw. This means that while the wing at the top is spinning at the same speed as the wing at the bottom, it is actually moving through the air at a higher rate of speed.

When a wing moves through the air more quickly, more air passes under it. This translates into more lift because the wing has to exert more force to push down the increased mass. So, it's as if somebody were constantly pushing the whole spinning propeller of the boomerang at the top of the spin.

But everybody knows that when you push something from the top, say a chair, you tip the thing over and it falls to the ground. Why doesn't this happen when you push on the top of a spinning boomerang?

If you've read How Gyroscopes Work, then you may have already guessed what's going on here. When you push on one point of a spinning object, such as a wheel, airplane propeller or boomerang, the object doesn't react in the way you might expect. When you push a spinning wheel, for example, the wheel reacts to the force as if you pushed it at a point 90 degrees off from when where you actually pushed it. To see this, roll a bicycle wheel along next to you and push on it at the top. The wheel will turn to the left or right, as if there were a force acting on the front of the wheel. This is because with a spinning object, the point you push isn't stationary, it's rotating around an axis! You applied the force to a point at the top of the wheel, but that point immediately moved around to the front of the wheel while it was still feeling the force you applied. There's a sort of delayed reaction, and the force actually has the strongest effect on the object about 90 degrees off from where it was first applied.

In this scenario, the wheel would quickly straighten out after turning slightly because as the point of force rotates around the wheel, it ends up applying force on opposite ends of the wheel, which balances out the effect of the force. But constantly pushing on the top of the wheel would keep a steady force acting on the front of the wheel. This force would be stronger than the counterbalancing forces, so the wheel would keep turning, traveling in a circle.

If you've ever steered a bicycle without using the handlebars, you've experienced this effect. You shift your weight on the bicycle so that the top of the wheel moves to the side, but every bicycle rider knows that the bike doesn't tip over as it would if it were standing still, but turns to the right or left instead.

This is the same thing that is happening in a boomerang. The uneven force caused by the difference in speed between the two wings applies a constant force at the top of the spinning boomerang, which is actually felt at the leading side of the spin. So, like a leaning bicycle wheel, the boomerang is constantly turning to the left or right, so that it travels in a circle and comes back to its starting point.

How Do I Throw One?
As we've seen, there are several forces acting on a boomerang as it spins through the air. We know that the boomerang is affected by:

  • The force of gravity
  • The force caused by the propeller motion
  • The force of your throw
  • The force caused by the uneven speed of the wings
  • The force of any wind in the area

So there are five variables involved in a boomerang flight. For a boomerang to actually travel in a circle and come back to its starting point, all of these forces have to be balanced in just the right way. To accomplish this, you need a well-designed boomerang and a correct throw. In cartoons, the boomerang takes care of all the work and pretty much anyone can get the boomerang to return on the first try. Any boomerang enthusiast will tell you, however, that the only way to consistently make good throws is to practice good technique. In this section, we'll give you the basics so you can get started on perfecting your throw.

  1. Your first instinct when you pick up a boomerang may be to throw it like a Frisbee. If you do this, the force of the propeller motion will launch the boomerang up into a vertical arc instead of into a horizontal arc right above the ground. The correct way to hold a boomerang is at a slight angle, say 15 to 20 degrees, from vertical. This will aim the force of the propeller up just enough to balance the force of gravity so that the boomerang isn't pulled to the ground before it can make a complete circle.

  2. Hold the boomerang as shown in the diagram above, with the V-point, called the elbow, pointing toward you, and with the flat side facing out. Hold the boomerang at the end of the bottom wing, with a light pinch-like grip. This boomerang is designed for a right-handed person -- when you hold it correctly with your right hand, the curved edge is on the left and the top wing's leading edge is facing away from you. It probably won't travel back to you if you throw it with your left hand. If you are left-handed, make sure you get a left-handed boomerang -- one that is a mirror image of the boomerang in this illustration. Colorado Boomerangs sells a variety of boomerang styles, and the company says that every model is available in a left-handed version. If you are throwing with your left hand, hold the boomerang so that it is tilted to the left, with the curved side facing to the right. A right-handed boomerang will travel in a counter-clockwise circle and a left-handed boomerang will travel in a clockwise circle.

  3. To keep the wind from forcing the boomerang off course, you should aim the boomerang at a point about 45 to 50 degrees to one side from the direction of the wind (stand facing the wind and rotate about 45 degrees clockwise or counter-clockwise). Adjust the position of the boomerang depending on how much wind there is, as shown in the diagram.

  4. When you have set your grip on the boomerang and you have oriented yourself in relation to the wind, bring the boomerang back behind you and snap it forward as if you were throwing a baseball. It is very important to snap your wrist as you release the boomerang so that it has a good spin to it. Spin is the most important thing in a boomerang throw -- it's what makes the boomerang travel in a curved path.

  5. When you throw the boomerang vertically, the uneven force on the top of the spin tilts the axis down gradually, so it should come back to you lying down horizontally, as a Frisbee would. But don't try to catch it with one hand -- the spinning blades could really hurt you. The safe way to catch a returning boomerang is to clap it between your two hands. Always be careful when playing with a boomerang, especially a heavier model. When you throw the boomerang, you must keep your eye on it at all times or it could hit you on the return. If you lose track of its path, duck and cover your head rather then trying to figure out where it is. Boomerangs move quickly, with a lot of force.

Your first attempt will probably end up on the ground, as will your second and third, so don't try to learn with an expensive hand-carved model -- pick up a cheap plastic design at the toy store. Boomeranging is a difficult skill, but it can be a lot of fun to practice. It's certainly a satisfying accomplishment when the boomerang actually comes right back to you and you catch it perfectly!

How Was It Invented?
Boomerangs make perfect sense once you understand all of the physical forces at work, but it doesn't seem like something early man would suddenly come up with out of the blue. So how on earth did this amazing invention come about? Anthropologists believe it was mostly a matter of trial and error.

First let's consider how a primitive hunter might have come up with a non-returning boomerang. We know that at some point people started using the rocks and sticks they found around them as crude tools. One very early invention was the club, which is just a stick that you hit something or somebody with. Hurling a club to hit somebody is just a slight extension of this basic tool, so it's not a stretch to suppose that this was a common use of the club.

A classic boomerang design, hand-crafted
by Australian Aborigines

In nature, there are plenty of sticks that are bent in a curve like a boomerang, and people probably threw these sorts of sticks all the time. Because of the stabilizing motion of the two branches of the stick, this sort of stick would have stayed aloft longer and would have been easier to send in the desired direction. Primitive humans noticed this, and so they started specifically seeking out bent sticks when they wanted to throw a club at their target. Then they started selecting the best curved sticks (thinner, longer ones work better) and were soon customizing sticks so they were especially suited for taking down prey. Non-returning boomerangs have been found all over the world. The oldest known non-returning boomerang, an artifact found in Poland, dates from about 20,000 years ago.

The experts aren't really sure when and where people first developed returning boomerangs, but the Aborigines of Australia are generally credited with the invention. Aborigines used non-returning boomerangs, which they call kylies, extensively in hunting, and the theory is that at some point, one or more Aborigines used a kylie with the particular shape of a boomerang and noticed that it traveled in an arc. This might have been pure accident or it might have been the result of design experimentation. One theory is that an Aboriginal hunter fashioned a smaller kylie with a more angled curve because he or she noticed how a bird held its wings in a pronounced V shape while soaring through the air.

The amazing flight pattern of the new discovery didn't really help out much in taking down prey -- it actually made it harder to aim accurately -- but it was, of course, really cool. Evidently, the Aborigines perfected the boomerang design and throwing technique for the simple pleasure of it, and the boomerang has mostly been used as sports equipment ever since then. The standard game is to see who can throw the boomerang the farthest and still catch it on its return. The boomerang did have some limited use in hunting, however. The Aborigines would set up nets in trees and then throw the boomerang into the air while making a hawk call. This would scare flocks of birds so they would fly down into the nets.

The boomerang is actually the first man-made flying machine, and so it is the direct predecessor of the airplane, helicopter, blimp -- even the space shuttle! It's amazing that a hunk of wood can make such effective use of complex principles of physics -- so amazing that it really seems like magic until you understand what's happening. The boomerang is a great learning tool for anyone interested in physics, and it is certainly one of the most remarkable toys in history!

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