differential

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dif·fer·en·tial / ˌdifəˈrenshəl/ chiefly technical • adj. of, showing, or depending on a difference; differing or varying according to circumstances or relevant factors: the differential achievements of boys and girls. ∎  constituting a specific difference; distinctive: the differential features between benign and malignant tumors. ∎  Math. relating to infinitesimal differences or to the derivatives of functions. ∎  of or relating to a difference in a physical quantity: a differential amplifier. • n. a difference between amounts of things: the differential between gasoline and diesel prices. ∎  Math. an infinitesimal difference between successive values of a variable. ∎  (also differential gear) a set of gears allowing a vehicle's driven wheels to revolve at different speeds when going around corners. DERIVATIVES: dif·fer·en·tial·ly adv.

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differential, in the automobile, a set of gears used on the driving (usually rear) axle. The two wheels on the driving axle must be interconnected in order to receive their energy from the same source, the driving shaft; at the same time they must be free to revolve at different speeds when necessary (e.g., when rounding a curve, the outer wheel travels farther and thus must revolve faster than the inner wheel in order to prevent skidding). These two requirements are met by the differential gearing. Furthermore, through it the rotating motion of the driving shaft is transmitted to the axle and the wheels. The axle is in two halves; to each half is attached a wheel at one end and, at the inner end, a gear (see gear). The end of the driving shaft is also equipped with a gear. By an ingenious arrangement of these and other gears, together constituting the differential, a difference in speed of the two wheels is compensated for without a loss of tractive force. A disadvantage of the conventional differential is that when one wheel is on a dry and the other on a slippery surface, the differential causes the wheel on the slippery surface to revolve at double speed while the other wheel remains stationary. This hazard can be avoided by use of a limited slip differential, which feeds power to one wheel when the other wheel starts to slip and thus keeps the automobile moving.

See R. T. Hinkle, Kinematics of Machines (2d ed. 1960).

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differential In mathematics, small change occurring in the value of a mathematical expression due to a small change in a variable. If f(x) is a function of x, the differential of the function, written df, is given by f'(x)dx, where f'(x) is the derivative of f(x).

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differential In mechanics, a set of circular gears that transmits power from an engine to the wheels. When a car is turning a corner, the differential allows the outside drive wheel to rotate faster than the inner one.