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Force, in


, any


that tends to maintain or alter the


of a body or to distort it. The concept of force is commonly explained in terms of

Isaac Newton

’s three

laws of motion

set forth in his

Principia Mathematica

(1687). According to

Newton’s first principle

, a body that is at rest or moving at a uniform rate in a straight line will remain in that state until some force is applied to it. The

second law

says that when an external force acts on a body, it produces an


(change in velocity) of the body in the direction of the force. The magnitude of the acceleration is directly proportional to the magnitude of the external force and inversely proportional to the quantity of matter in the body.

Newton’s third law

states that when one body exerts a force on another body, the second body exerts an equal force on the first body. This principle of action and reaction explains why a force tends to deform a body (i.e., change its shape) whether or not it causes the body to move. The


of a body can usually be neglected when investigating its motion.

Because force has both magnitude and direction, it is a vector quantity. The representation of forces by vectors implies that they are concentrated either at a single point or along a single line. This is, however, physically impossible. On a loaded component of a structure, for example, the applied force produces an internal force, or


, that is distributed over the

cross section

of the component. The force of


is invariably distributed throughout the volume of a body. Nonetheless, when the


of a body is the primary consideration, it is generally valid as well as convenient to assume that the forces are concentrated at a single point. In the case of gravitational force, the total


of a body may be assumed to be concentrated at its

centre of gravity


gravity, centre of


Physicists use the


, a unit of the

International System

(SI), for measuring force. A newton is the force needed to accelerate a body weighing one


by one


per second per second. The formula F = ma is employed to calculate the number of newtons required to increase or decrease the


of a given body. In countries still using the English system of


, engineers commonly measure force in pounds. One


of force imparts to a one-pound object an acceleration of 32.17


per second squared.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica

This article was most recently revised and updated by

Erik Gregersen

, Senior Editor.

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