Centrifugal governor

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Drawing of a centrifugal "flyball" governor

A centrifugal governor is a specific type of governor with a feedback system that controls the speed of an engine by regulating the amount of fuel (or working fluid) admitted, so as to maintain a near-constant speed, irrespective of the load or fuel-supply conditions. It uses the principle of proportional control.

It was invented in 1788 by James Watt to control his steam engine where it regulates the admission of steam into the cylinder(s). Its widest use was on steam engines during the Steam Age in the 19th century. It is also found on internal combustion engines and variously fueled turbines, and in some modern striking clocks.


Cut-away drawing of steam engine speed governor. The valve starts fully open at zero speed, and is closed as the balls rotate and rise. The speed sensing drive shaft is top right
Porter governor on a Corliss steam engine

The devices shown are on steam engines. Power is supplied to the governor from the engine's output shaft by a belt or chain connected to the lower belt wheel. The governor is connected to a throttle valve that regulates the flow of working fluid (steam) supplying the prime mover. As the speed of the prime mover increases, the central spindle of the governor rotates at a faster rate and the kinetic energy of the balls increases. This allows the two masses on lever arms to move outwards and upwards against gravity. If the motion goes far enough, this motion causes the lever arms to pull down on a thrust bearing, which moves a beam linkage, which reduces the aperture of a throttle valve. The rate of working-fluid entering the cylinder is thus reduced and the speed of the prime mover is controlled, preventing over-speeding.

Mechanical stops may be used to limit the range of throttle motion, as seen near the masses in the image at right.

Non-gravitational regulation[edit]

A limitation of the two-arm, two-ball governor is its reliance on gravity, and that the governor must stay upright relative to the surface of the Earth for gravity to retract the balls when the governor slows down.

Governors can be built that do not use gravitational force, by using a single straight arm with weights on both ends, a center pivot attached to a spinning axle, and a spring that tries to force the weights towards the center of the spinning axle. The two weights on opposite ends of the pivot arm counterbalance any gravitational effects, but both weights use centrifugal force to work against the spring and attempt to rotate the pivot arm towards a perpendicular axis relative to the spinning axle.

Spring-retracted non-gravitational governors are commonly used in single-phase alternating current (AC) induction motors to turn off the starting field coil when the motor's rotational speed is high enough.

They are also commonly used in snowmobile and all-terrain vehicle (ATV) continuously variable transmissions (CVT), both to engage/disengage vehicle motion and to vary the transmission's pulley diameter ratio in relation to the engine revolutions per minute.


Boulton & Watt engine of 1788

James Watt designed his first governor in 1788 following a suggestion from his business partner Matthew Boulton. It was a conical pendulum governor and one of the final series of innovations Watt had employed for steam engines. James Watt never claimed the centrifugal governor to be an invention of his own. Centrifugal governors were invented by Christian Huygens and used to regulate the distance and pressure between millstones in windmills in the 17th century.[1][2]

A giant statue of Watt's governor stands at Smethwick in the English West Midlands. It is known as the flyball governor.

Centrifugal governors are also used in many modern repeating watches to limit the speed of the striking train, so the repeater doesn't run too quickly.

Another kind of centrifugal governor consists of a pair of masses on a spindle inside a cylinder, the masses or the cylinder being coated with pads, somewhat like a drum brake. This is used in a spring-loaded record player and a spring-loaded telephone dial to limit the speed.

Dynamic systems[edit]

The centrifugal governor is often used in the cognitive sciences as an example of a dynamic system, in which the representation of information cannot be clearly separated from the operations being applied to the representation. And, because the governor is a servomechanism, its analysis in a dynamic system is not trivial. In 1868, James Clerk Maxwell wrote a famous paper "On governors"[3] that is widely considered a classic in feedback control theory. Maxwell distinguishes moderators (a centrifugal brake) and governors which control motive power input. He considers devices by James Watt, Professor James Thomson, Fleeming Jenkin, William Thomson, Léon Foucault and Carl Wilhelm Siemens (a liquid governor).

As an influence on cybernetics[edit]

In a largely overlooked passage from his famous 1858 paper to the Linnean Society (which led Darwin to publish On the Origin of Species), Alfred Russel Wallace says of the evolutionary principle:

The action of this principle is exactly like that of the centrifugal governor of the steam engine, which checks and corrects any irregularities almost before they become evident; and in like manner no unbalanced deficiency in the animal kingdom can ever reach any conspicuous magnitude, because it would make itself felt at the very first step, by rendering existence difficult and extinction almost sure soon to follow.[4]

The cybernetician and anthropologist Gregory Bateson would observe in the 1970s that though seeing it only as an illustration, Wallace had "probably said the most powerful thing that’d been said in the 19th century".[5] Bateson revisited the topic in his 1979 book Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity, and other scholars have continued to explore the connection between natural selection and systems theory.[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hills, Richard L (1996), Power From the Wind, Cambridge University Press 
  2. ^ https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=iwbWCgAAQBAJ&pg=PA36&dq="Centrifugal+Governor"+Huygens&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjq8cC3uaHPAhWCmBoKHR2OCqwQ6AEIPjAH#v=onepage&q=%22Centrifugal%20Governor%22%20Huygens&f=false
  3. ^ Maxwell, James Clerk (1868). "On Governors". Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. 16: 270–283. doi:10.1098/rspl.1867.0055. JSTOR 112510. 
  4. ^ Wallace, Alfred Russel. "On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely From the Original Type". Retrieved 2009-04-18. 
  5. ^ Brand, Stewart. "For God's Sake, Margaret". CoEvolutionary Quarterly, June 1976. Archived from the original on 2010-11-11. Retrieved 2010-11-11. 
  6. ^ Smith, Charles H. "Wallace's Unfinished Business". Complexity (publisher Wiley Periodicals, Inc.) Volume 10, No 2, 2004. Retrieved 2007-05-11.