The Feynman Sprinkler

In the early 1940s a curious question began to circulate among the members of the Princeton physics department. An ordinary lawn sprinkler like the one shown here would turn clockwise (in the direction of the long arrow) as its jets ejected water (short arrows). If you reversed this — that is, if you submerged the sprinkler in a tank of water and induced the jets to suck in the fluid — would the sprinkler turn in the opposite direction?

The problem is associated with Richard Feynman, who was a grad student at the time (and who destroyed a glass container in the university’s cyclotron laboratory trying to find the answer).

In fact Ernst Mach had first asked the question in an 1883 textbook. The answer, briefly, is no: The submerged sprinkler doesn’t turn counterclockwise because counterbalancing forces at the back of the nozzle result in no net torque. Experiments tend to bear this out, although in some cases the sprinkler turns slightly counterclockwise, perhaps due to the formation of a vortex within the sprinkler body.