Why are Manhole Covers Round?

Have you ever noticed that every manhole cover you see is round? Have you ever wondered how engineers came to this decision? Did you realize that the reasoning comes down to the geometry of shapes?

That’s right: manhole covers are round because circles are the only shapes that cannot fall through themselves.

Let’s examine some of the properties of shapes to see why this is true.

First, it’s important to recognize that the shapes will only fall through themselves when they are rotated to be vertical. If they were lying flat then they would be covering the hole successfully!

Next, let’s examine shapes with unequal sides beginning with a triangle. If the triangle had side lengths of 3, 3, and 2 feet then we could rotate it so that the side with length 2 feet was parallel to the ground. This would mean that the width of the manhole cover would now be 2 feet, with the width of the opening approaching 3 along the sides of the hole. Since 3 is greater than 2, the cover would be able to fall through the opening. Similarly for a 4-sided figure if one side is shorter or longer than the others then we will find the same result.

There is a pattern to notice from examining the previous shapes. The shortest width of each shape is compared to the longest length. But what if the covers were regular shapes with all sides and angles being the same?

Let’s look at a square with length of 1 foot on each . The shortest width of a square will be the length of a side. But how about the longest length? That can be found by measuring from the upper left-hand corner to the lower-right hand corner.

Using Pythagorean’s Theorem, we know that 1^2 + 1^2 = diagonal^2. So the diagonal is square root of 2, or approximately 1.414. This means that this square could still fall through itself.

So now our focus can shift to finding a shape whose longest length and shortest width are the same. But this would mean that we would need all widths and lengths to be the same because we cannot have the longest length be shorter than the shortest width. This leads us to a circle.

A circle will always have the width of its diameter no matter which way it is rotated, so this will be the shortest width. But the longest length will also be the diameter as well because any chord will be shorter than the diameter. So the circle is unique to all polygons and shapes in that it can never fall through itself.

Want to test geometry with physical objects? Since manhole covers are heavy you should explore this idea using Tupperware containers. See how many different lid shapes will fall into the container, and how many will not – then post your comments!


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We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts, subscribe via email, or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at msp@msteacher.org.


This post was originally posted in the Everyday Explanations – Answers to Questions Posed on a Middle School Bus Ride by Sean Mittleman. We have his permission to re-post in the MSP2 blog.

Happy Belated Pi Day!

I’m sure lots of folks celebrated Pi Day on 3/14 – this post is for those folks that sorta forgot! Anyway – these great ideas, lessons, and activities can be used throughout the year. Please share your favorite Pi lessons in the comment area.

Ways to Think About Pi – from the Ohio Resource Center for Math, Science, and Reading – includes facts about Pi and lessons and activities

Going Around In Circles – from the Middle School Portal 2 (MSP2) project

These next three resources come from Wired Science and include background information and lesson ideas:

How Do You Determine Pi Without a Circle?

Activities for Pi Day

Pi: How Many Digits Do You Need?

You can also do a search in the Middle School Portal 2 Digital Library – you’ll get back resources that right on track for middle school math students.

We Want Your Feedback
We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at msp@msteacher.org. Post updated 4/05/2012.

Around a Circle: Measuring a Geometric Figure

Your textbook has many, many problems on finding the measurements of a circle, so I looked for problems that are off the beaten track. The result is an unusual set of applications to the circle, therefore challenging but intriguing, I think, for middle school classes. Let your colleagues know of your own ideas  and comments on this topic. Just add a note below.

Discovering the Value of Pi
Students measure the diameter and circumference of several circles, using a handy applet, record their data and reach conclusions about the ratio of circumference to diameter. A genuine guided exploration!

Windshield Wipers: It’s Raining! Who Sees More? The Driver of the Car or the Truck?
In this activity, students compare the areas cleaned by different wiper designs. An animation shows the movement of the two windshield wipers, each cleaning off a different geometric shape on the window. Students are encouraged to draw the shape cleaned by each wiper and find its area.

The Great Circle
By clicking on two cities on a world globe, students see two line segments connecting the cities, one showing the great circle route (the shortest) and the other showing the route on a flat map. An interesting  and visual application of real-world math.

Three Piece Circle Puzzle
Students create the puzzle themselves, using compasses, and are challenged to find the area of each of the three pieces. You will need to guide your eighth- and ninth-grade students through the given solution.

We Want Your Feedback
We want and need your ideas, suggestions, and observations. What would you like to know more about? What questions have your students asked? We invite you to share with us and other readers by posting your comments. Please check back often for our newest posts or download the RSS feed for this blog. Let us know what you think and tell us how we can serve you better. We appreciate your feedback on all of our Middle School Portal 2 publications. You can also email us at msp@msteacher.org. Post updated 4/05/2012.