A clutch is a mechanical device which provides driving force to another mechanism, typically by connecting the driven mechanism to the driving mechanism. Its opposite component is a brake, which inhibits motion.
Clutches are useful in devices that have two rotating shafts. In these devices, one shaft is typically attached to a motor or other power unit (the driving member), and the other shaft (the driven member) provides output power for work to be done. In a drill, for instance, one shaft is driven by a motor, and the other drives a drill chuck. The clutch connects the two shafts so that they can either be locked together and spin at the same speed (engaged), or be decoupled and spin at different speeds (disengaged).
On most motorcycles, the clutch is operated by the clutch lever, located on the left handlebar. No pressure on the lever means that the clutch plates are engaged (driving), while pulling the lever back towards the rider will disengage the clutch plates through cable or hydraulic actuation, allowing the rider to shift gears. Motorcycle clutches are usually made up of a stack of alternating plain steel and friction plates. One type of plate has lugs on its inner diameter that key it to the engine crankshaft, while the other type of plate has lugs on its outer diameter that key it to a basket that turns the transmission input shaft. The plates are forced together by a set of coil springs when the clutch is engaged. Racing motorcycles often use slipper clutches to eliminate the effects of engine braking, which, being applied only to the rear wheel, can lead to instability.
Wet vs. dry
A 'wet clutch' is immersed in a cooling lubricating fluid, which also keeps the surfaces clean and gives smoother performance and longer life. Wet clutches, however, tend to lose some energy to the liquid. A 'dry clutch', as the name implies, is not bathed in fluid. Since the surfaces of a wet clutch can be slippery (as with a motorcycle clutch bathed in engine oil), stacking multiple clutch disks can compensate for the lower coefficient of friction and so eliminate slippage under power when fully engaged.