for Teaching Physics

Michael Horton,


Erlend H. Graf, Column Editor Department of Physics & Astronomy, SUNY–Stony Brook, Stony Brook, NY 11794;

A $400 Photogate for $50 or Less
Riverside County Office of Education, 3939 12th St., Riverside, CA;


hotogates are extremely valuable in introductory physics, but the price can be prohibitive for the average high school teacher. I have designed several photogates that one can construct for less than $50 with just a little soldering skill. The photogate featured here sells for nearly $400 in science catalogs and you can build it for around $50 depending on the case that you use. The basic operation of this photogate is that it uses two photo sensors with relays to control the switch of a standard stopwatch. When light shines on the photodetector, the relay is open. When the light is blocked, the relay closes and activates the stopwatch. When the parallel gate is blocked or the same gate is blocked a second time, the switch is activated

again, stopping the watch. An external battery with a switch is added to the stopwatch to conserve power and a switch is put on the power source for each gate to allow it to operate in either single or double mode. The photo sensors used are Elenco K-48 “Photo Sensor with Control Relay” kits and cost around $13 each (see Fig. 1). I have tested the device, and it is shown to be accurate enough for high school work. A flashlight or laser may be used as the light source. This photogate is portable, standalone, and easy to use. During the evolution of this device, I learned several lessons that will make it more practical and useful. First, the metal case that I purchased was the most

expensive part of the entire device. I used a large case so that I could spread the detectors exactly 20 cm apart. If you put the CDS sensors on the ends of long wires, they can be spread even farther and a much smaller case may be used. In this case, the device may be constructed for around $40 and will be more flexible. Adding the switches described above adds a lot of convenience and reduces dead batteries. Use double-sided tape to anchor the circuit boards and the batteries inside the case. The photogate may be used for several standard experiments. One could determine the period of a pendulum and calculate the acceleration of gravity. One could use dropped objects to calculate the acceleration of gravity. One

Fig. 1. Fully assembled photogate.

Fig. 2. Modified stopwatch.

Fig. 3. View of two photo sensors and wiring.


DOI: 10.1119/1.2895679

ThE PhySiCS TEAChER ◆ Vol. 46, April 2008


could find the velocity of an RC car, bowling ball, marble on a ramp, etc. The device measures the time between passing through one gate twice or the time from one gate to another. It cannot measure how long the gate is blocked. Someone with electrical engineering expertise could certainly modify the circuit to trigger when the light is blocked and again when it is unblocked. Construction of the device consists of opening an inexpensive stopwatch and finding the button for the start/stop switch. The “MyChron” stopwatches are inexpensive and have perfect switches for this project. Solder a wire to each of the contacts for the button on the stopwatch’s circuit board and run the wire through the case. By soldering to the contacts instead of the switch itself, the button continues to work as normal. Touch the wires together to make sure that the connections are good and that the switch is not shorted. Take the battery out and solder wires to both connectors for the battery. Connect

those wires through a switch to a single AA or AAA battery holder (see Fig. 2). Construct the light switch circuits as directed. You will likely want the device so that darkness activates the watch, so use the “Normally Open” (“NO”) outputs on the board. Do not put the stiff connector pegs into the holes as any force on them will lift the traces on the circuit boards. Just solder flexible wires into the holes. Connect the COM of the two boards together and the “NO” outputs together, and connect those to the wires from the stopwatch’s start/ stop switch. Put switches on the batteries for the circuits (see Fig. 3). Although the prototype pictured has the detectors on the board, I highly recommend that you keep the sensor off of the board at the end of a long pair of wires. Run the wires out of the case, and put the sensor in a dark straw, shrink tubing, or a film container to block stray light. Check all connections before testing. Turn all switches on and test the device.

Mount the boards in the smallest case possible (plastic is less expensive), and put electrical tape on any wires that may short out. To test the device, shine a flashlight on each sensor and wave your hand between them. The watch should stop and start each time. It is possible that if the switches are operated often, the stopwatch will freeze up. It has a reset button on the back that will fix it. Elenco recently discontinued this kit but it is still available from thirdparty retailers, and similar kits from other manufacturers will work fine. I will put a list on my website along with more pictures and a schematic of this project. You can also get information about another photogate that I designed that connects to your computer via USB that is far simpler to build than this version, can be constructed for $20, uses free software, and is good to several decimal places. Just go to http://photogate.
PACS codes: 01.50.Pa, 01.55.+b

A Quick and Simple Laser Fountain
Papers worth rereading

From Our Files Column Editor: Thomas B. Greenslade Jr. Dept. of Physics, Kenyon College Gambier, Oh 430122;

Robert B. Prigo and Abel Rosales, “A Quick and Simple Laser Fountain,” Phys. Teach. 16, 296–297 (May 1978). A glass cold trap is used to project a jet of water and simultaneously send a laser beam down it, thus displaying total internal reflection in the resulting water parabola.

ThE PhySiCS TEAChER ◆ Vol. 46, April 2008