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Speed of Sound in Metal

Pipes: An Inexpensive Lab

Elisha Huggins, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH
ur favorite demonstration for sound waves
is to set up a compressional pulse on a hor-
izontally stretched Slinky. One can easily
watch the pulse move back and forth at a speed of
the order of one meter per second. Watching this
demonstration, it occurred to us that the same thing
might happen in a steel pipe if you hit the end of
the pipe with a hammer. The main difference is that
the speed of sound in steel is close to 5000 meters
per second. If you hit the end of a 10-ft (3.05-m)
pipe, the pulse should take about 1.2 ms to go down
and back, a time conveniently measured by an oscil-
We found out that The Physics Teacher and the
American Journal of Physics have several articles de-
scribing clever ways to measure the speed of sound
in steel rods, pipes, and wires.
Here we wish to
describe an experiment that uses readily available
equipment, is inexpensive, and is easy to perform.
For equipment we used the apparatus shown in Fig. 1
of the TPT article on Fourier Analysis in Introduc-
tory Physics.
This apparatus uses an $8 Wal-Mart
microphone and a $40 Griffin
iMic plugged into a
computer running the shareware oscilloscope program
MacScope II.
The program runs on any computer
with a USB port. If the computer has a microphone
input, the iMic is not needed.
As shown in Fig. 1, we taped the tip of the micro-
phone to the end of a 10-ft piece of electrical conduit
pipe, which we purchased at Home Depot. Running
the MacScope II program in trigger mode and hitting
the end of the pipe with a hammer, we got the results
shown in Fig. 2. Here we see a regular series of pulses
representing the compressional pulse bouncing back
and forth. Selecting the front edge of seven pulses, the
curve A window tells us that the seven bounces took
8.38 ms for an average time of 1.20 ms for the 6.10-m
trip. This corresponds to a speed of 5080 m/s.
To set up the trigger mode, we watched the ambi-
ent voltage and saw that it did not rise to 20 mv if we
did not touch the pipe. Thus we set the trigger level
to 20 mv, clicked the Trigger A button, and selected
Stop on Trigger as seen in Fig. 2. When we hit the
pipe, we immediately got the curve shown. We sus-
pect that the small pulses between the seven regular
Fig. 1. Microphone taped to steel pipe.
Fig. 2. By selecting seven pulses (heavy line), we get an
elapsed time of 8.38 ms for the seven bounces of the
sound pulse. Thus the pulse traveled down and back
(6.10 m) in 1.20 ms for an average speed of 5080 m/s.
THE PHYSICS TEACHER Vol. 46, January 2008 DOI: 10.1119/1.2823993 13
14 THE PHYSICS TEACHER Vol. 46, January 2008
pulses result from the hammer bouncing when it hit
the pipe.
Measuring the Delay
To be sure that we were observing a pulse moving
down the pipe, we decided to measure the delay as the
sound pulse moved for the first time down the pipe.
To do this, we attached microphones to both ends of
the pipe, plugged them into the left and right sides of
the stereo input, triggered both curve A and curve B,
and got the results shown in Fig. 3. Here we see the
0.60-ms delay in curve B, which is the time the pulse
took to travel down the pipe.
There was a complication involved in measuring
this 0.60-ms delay. Typical computer microphones
are powered by the computer (or the iMic). We found
that any connections that powered both microphones
also mixed the signals and we could not see the delay.
To handle this problem, we purchased two $25 bat-
tery-powered mono lapel microphones from Radio
Shack. We also had to purchase two $4 connectors to
go from the 1/8-in mini plug of the microphone to
the RCA input of the Y connector supplied with the
Griffin iMic. This wiring setup is shown in Fig. 4. The
net result was that it cost us an additional $58 in order
to see the delay.
1. Gerald P. Hart, Measurement of the speed of sound in
metal rods using the microcomputer, Phys. Teach. 24,
89 (Feb. 1986).
2. Tony Key, Robert Smidrovskis, and Milton From,
Measuring the speed of sound in a solid, Phys. Teach.
38, 7677 (Feb. 2000). A signal generator and a trans-
ducer were used to create a series of square wave pulses
in an acrylic rod.
3. David Potter, The speed of sound in an iron rod,
Phys. Teach. 40, 5657 (Jan. 2002). A pickup coil used
to detect the enhanced magnetization of the compres-
sional pulse.
4. Karl C. Mamola, Measurement of sound velocities in
metal wires, Am. J. Phys. 42, 1117118 (Dec. 1974).
A loud compressional wave is created by dragging a wet
sponge along a stretched wire.
5. Elisha Huggins, Fourier analysis in introductory phys-
ics, Phys. Teach. 45, 2629 (Jan. 2007). Introduces the
use of MacScope.
6. The iMic is discussed at: http://www.griffintechnology.
7. The shareware program MacScope II, which turns any
USB Mac or Windows computer into an audio
oscilloscope, can be freely downloaded from: http://
PACS codes: 01.40.d, 01.50.My, 01.50.Pa
Elisha Huggins is professor emeritus at Dartmouth
College. This paper uses his second version of
MacScope. The first version had a $2000 hardware inter-
face box, which could be eliminated using the computers
sound input capability.
29 Moose Mt. Lodge Road, Etna, NH 03750;
Fig. 3. Curve A shows the signal from the microphone
at the hammer end of the pipe. The microphone at the
other end, whose output is seen in curve B, shows no
response for 0.60 ms.
Fig. 4. The signals from
the two microphones
enter the Y connector
supplied by Griffin. We
had to convert from mono
1/8-in microphone plugs
to RCA inputs on the Y