Precision Instruments

Balances are used for precision mass measurement, because unlike spring scales their accuracy is not affected by differences in the local gravity, which can vary by almost 0.5% at different locations on Earth. A change in the strength of the gravitational field caused by moving the balance will not change the measured mass, because the moments of force on either side of the balance beam are affected equally.

Very precise measurements are achieved by ensuring that the balance's fulcrum is essentially friction-free (a knife edge is the traditional solution), by attaching a pointer to the beam which amplifies any deviation from a balance position; and finally by using the lever principle, which allows fractional masses to be applied by movement of a small mass along the measuring arm of the beam, as described above. For greatest accuracy, there needs to be an allowance for the buoyancy in air, whose effect depends on the densities of the masses involved.

The original form of a balance consisted of a beam with a fulcrum at its center. For highest accuracy, the fulcrum would consist of a sharp V-shaped pivot seated in a shallower V-shaped bearing. To determine the mass of the object, a combination of reference masses was hung on one end of the beam while the object of unknown mass was hung on the other end (see balance and steelyard balance). For high precision work, the center beam balance is still one of the most accurate technologies available, and is commonly used for calibrating test weights.

To reduce the need for large reference masses, an off-center beam can be used. A balance with an off-center beam can be almost as accurate as a scale with a center beam, but the off-center beam requires special reference masses and cannot be intrinsically checked for accuracy by simply swapping the contents of the pans as a center-beam balance can. To reduce the need for small graduated reference masses, a sliding weight called a poise can be installed so that it can be positioned along a calibrated scale. A poise adds further intricacies to the calibration procedure, since the exact mass of the poise must be adjusted to the exact lever ratio of the beam.

For greater convenience in placing large and awkward loads, a platform can be floated on a cantilever beam system which brings the proportional force to a noseiron bearing; this pulls on a stilyard rod to transmit the reduced force to a conveniently sized beam. One still sees this design in portable beam balances of 500 kg capacity which are commonly used in harsh environments without electricity, as well as in the lighter duty mechanical bathroom scale (which actually uses a spring scale, internally). The additional pivots and bearings all reduce the accuracy and complicate calibration; the float system must be corrected for corner errors before the span is corrected by adjusting the balance beam and poise. Such systems are typically accurate to at best 1/10,000 of their capacity, unless they are expensively engineered.

Some high-end mechanical balances also use dials (with counterbalancing masses instead of springs), a hybrid design with some of the accuracy advantages of the poise and beam but the convenience of a dial reading. These designs are expensive to produce and have become largely obsolete due to the advent of electronic balances.