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Scientists, Grifters, and the Search for Perpetual Motion

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

Is it possible to create a perpetual-motion machine?

Is it possible to create a perpetual-motion machine?

Creating a machine that works without the input of energy is the stuff of dreamers and con artists. The immutable laws of physics dictate that such machines are impossible; energy cannot be created or destroyed, and you can’t get out more energy than you put in.

In the impossible event that someone invents a machine that does run forever, it won’t be of any use. It will only produce enough energy to run itself, and there won’t be any extra energy with which to, say, charge a battery. “Physics, shmysics” many people have said, “I’m going to solve the puzzle.”

The Overbalanced Wheel

In the 12th century CE, an Indian mathematician called Bhaskara the Learned drew up plans for a wheel that, once set in motion, would continue to spin forever. His idea was to load tilted vials with mercury so that one side of the wheel would always be heavier than the other, causing it to turn endlessly.

But, Bhaskara’s contraption, which became known as an “unbalanced wheel,” didn’t work. It violated those pesky rules of physics. since then, dozens of others have tried to reinvent Bhaskara’s wheel with equally dismal results.

Some inventors tried replacing the mercury with rolling balls, while others experimented with weights on swinging arms. Still, none achieved success, and still, people try to make it work.

Norman Rockwell depicted a garage inventor with an unbalanced wheel in 1920.

Norman Rockwell depicted a garage inventor with an unbalanced wheel in 1920.

Endless Water

Many of those who tinker in their basements believe the answer to perpetual motion lies in the use of water. Spoiler alert—it doesn’t. Robert Boyle was an accomplished scientist in the 17th century, but even he succumbed to the allure of perpetual motion. He imagined a flask with a tube at its bottom that curls upward. Liquid is put into the flask and passes out through the tube, then capillary action is supposed to carry it upward to refill the flask.

There are numerous videos on the internet showing the perpetual flask in action, but none of them reveal the hidden pump that makes it work. Even if it did work, what would be the point? If an attempt was made to draw energy from the circulation of water, the process would simply stop.

Peter Armand le Comte de Fontainemoreau of London had a go at cracking the uncrackable laws of physics. In the 19th century, he filed a patent for a contrivance that had bellows with lead weights immersed in a tank of water. The bellows were connected to a belt that passed over pulleys, and then . . . there’s no point in going further into this because it doesn’t work.

But what about the drinking bird toy? The goofy-looking fowl dips its beak into a glass of water and then swings back. Then it dips its beak in again and so on until you take the water away. Surely that’s perpetual motion. It’s actually heat differential that causes the illusion, but it doesn’t last forever. Eventually, the water in the glass evaporates, and the birdy stops dipping.

The ouroboros was an ancient mythical serpent that ate its own tale. It had about the same chance of being an example of perpetual motion as the inventions mentioned here.

The ouroboros was an ancient mythical serpent that ate its own tale. It had about the same chance of being an example of perpetual motion as the inventions mentioned here.

The Self-Driving Windmill

Mark Anthony Zimara (born 1460 in Padua) had many strings to his bow―philosopher, alchemist, physician, astrologer, and inventor of a windmill that provided its own power. His idea was to hook up some gigantic bellows to a windmill mechanically. Give the bellows a nudge, and they would puff wind to the windmill, which would turn and operate the bellows.

Dottore Zimara did not build his machine and left designing the linkages between the bellows and the windmill to others. It should have been left there, but it wasn’t. All sorts of dotty arrangements have been born and have died. But you can’t keep the enthusiasm of free-energy searchers from emerging again.

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In 2006, a Dublin-based company called Steorn Ltd. announced with great fanfare that it had created a technology to produce “free, clean, and constant energy.” There was an advertisement in The Economist touting its revolutionary Orbo machine, so it must be the real deal. Ten years and €23 million later, the company went into liquidation.

And that leads us into the waiting arms of legions of swindlers who use perpetual motion to enrich themselves.

Oh ye seekers after perpetual motion, how many vain chimeras have you pursued? Go and take your place with the alchemists.

— Leonardo da Vinci, 1494

The Hydro-Pneumatic Pulsating Vacuo-Motor Engine

The brainchild of John Keely, the Hydro-Pneumatic etc. etc., was going to provide the world with cheap energy for centuries. Keely was from Philadelphia, and during the middle of the 19th century, he bounced around in a variety of jobs―carnival barker, mechanic, painter . . .

In 1872, he made a dramatic announcement. He had discovered a new physical power previously unknown to humankind. He was going to use atoms from water. As the atoms are in constant motion, all you have to do is harness that movement and harvest what he called their “etheric force.”

This is where the Hydro-Pneumatic gizmo comes into play. At demonstrations, he would pour some water into his machine that would burble and rumble, and within seconds, it would start producing high pressure.

John Keely created the template for future scammers to gather perpetual money from suckers.

John Keely created the template for future scammers to gather perpetual money from suckers.

Then came the pitch. To get this miraculous invention into production, he needed investors. Before you could say perpetual motion, Keely had scooped up $5 million. They were delays, of course, inevitable in developing cutting-edge technology; a “shifting resonator” and “vaporic gun” were needed, and the “etheric generator” needed some tweaking.

Investors were pressed to increase their contributions because money was going to be made. Oh my word, great, enormous uncountable piles of the stuff! The Keely Motor Company was listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 1890. It traded steadily despite the fact that real scientists pointed out there were flaws in Keely’s theories—really big flaws, as it turned out.

The astonishing machine had a reservoir of compressed air hidden away in its innards. But John Ernst Worrell Keely escaped any consequences for his chicanery by the rather drastic strategy of dying before everything hit the fan.

Bonus Factoids

  • Lest you think we are now too sophisticated to fall for this sort of malarkey, take a look at crowdfunding websites. There, you will find folk trying to raise money to fund their perpetual motion inventions, and there are always rubes who fall for it.
  • In 1812, Charles Redheffer announced that he had built a perpetual energy machine. He made a lot of money by charging people to view his device on display in Philadelphia and New York. The scheme came unglued when an actual engineer exposed it as a fake.
  • Could “perpetual motion” be a suitable description of diarrhea?

Sources

  • “How John Keely Screwed Investors and Tricked the World with His Perpetual Motion Machine.” Bryan Taylor, Business Insider, December 10, 2013.
  • “Science Explained: The Physics of Perpetual Motion Machines.” Jolene Creighton, Futurism.com, March 16, 2016.
  • “Five Perpetual Motion Machines, and Why None of Them Work.” Ross Pomeroy, realclearscience.com, December 3, 2018.
  • “This Perpetual Beer Machine Is Fake, BUT THAT DOESN’T MEAN WE CAN’T DREAM.” Robbie Gonzalez, gizmodo.com, December 26, 2012.
  • “Steorn Liquidates.” Michael Ferrier, dispatchesfromthefuture.com, November 13, 2016.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on August 21, 2020:

I think there's already a perpetual motion in the universe? Why are not scientist recognizing that? That is the reason such an invention has not been produce.

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