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A Bizarre History of Perpetual Motion Machines

The concept of what has become known as “perpetual motion” is simple at its core. It basically describes an object or body that remains in ...

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The concept of what has become known as “perpetual motion” is simple at its core. It basically describes an object or body that remains in continuous motion forever without any external energy source. If a machine were to be built using some sort of perpetual motion technology, it would theoretically run forever without any needs of fuel, batteries, or power of any kind. This means basically unlimited energy, freeing us from the tethers of finite sources of fuel and giving us devices that will never wind down or die out. It has become a sort of holy grail for certain individuals, who continue to plug away at this seemingly unobtainable dream, and it is just how amazing how much the idea of perpetual motion has enthralled people over a large portion of history.

Such an invention would be groundbreaking, completely changing our world, and it is a fascinating thing to think about it, yet according to our current knowledge of physics it just simply isn’t possible, as such a machine would violate one or more of the laws of thermodynamics. To put it in simple terms, the First Law of Thermodynamics basically is about the conservation of energy, and says that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transformed from one form to another, making the idea of a machine constantly creating its own energy without any outside influence impossible. There is also the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which in simple terms more or less says that an isolated system will always move toward a state of disorder, for instance heat will always dissipate and energy will be lost on any number of variables, including moving parts, friction, even sound, with the more energy formed meaning the more energy wasted. It is all much more complicated than this very basic explanation, but the gist is, a perpetual motion machine is impossible according to our current understanding of the universe and the laws of the conversation of energy. That is not to say that people haven’t tried, though.

Efforts to come up with a real life perpetual motion machine have been going on since way back into history. One of the first examples was built in the 12th century by Indian author and medieval mathematician Bhaskara, which was an off-balanced wheel that would supposedly keep spinning indefinitely through use of a system of containers of mercury on its rim that created imbalances that theoretically would keep bringing the wheel back around again and again for eternity. It didn’t really work, but it did display the ingenuity some were willing to produce in order to figure this conundrum out. Over the centuries there would come a stream of supposed designs, with various contraptions seeking to produce perpetual motion, including windmills, self-filling flasks, float belts, magnets, pulleys, gears, wheels, and many others, all equally impossible due to what we now know about physics, and none were ever successful, true perpetual motion machines, causing scientist Henry Dircks, author of Perpetuum Mobile: Or, A History of the Search for Self-motive in 1861 to lament:

There is something lamentable, degrading, and almost insane in pursuing the visionary schemes of past ages with dogged determination, in paths of learning which have been investigated by superior minds, and with which such adventurous persons are totally unacquainted. The history of Perpetual Motion is a history of the fool-hardiness of either half-learned, or totally ignorant persons.

However, the idea of perpetual motion is so alluring that even well into more modern times these machines have been proposed, physics be damned. Some of these proposed devices have even managed to create quite a bit of excitement in their time. One of the most infamous of these was first unveiled in 1812 by an until then rather unknown man named Charles Redheffer, who exhibited it in his home in Philadelphia, in the United States. His fantastical machine featured a gravity-driven pendulum with a large horizontal gear on the bottom, and a smaller gear that interlocked with the larger one, with the large gear and the shaft able to rotate independently. On the gear were two ramps that held weights, and it all supposedly worked by these weights pushing the large gear away from the shaft, which would create friction that would cause the shaft and gear to spin. This spinning gear would then power the interlocked smaller gear, and on and on it would go, supposedly forever unless the weights were removed.

Diagram of Redheffer’s machine

The machine was put on display and immediately became a smash sensation, drawing in droves of amazed spectators and scientists alike, all of whom were charged a hefty admission fee by Redheffer and none of who could figure out how it all worked. It was largely whispered that he had finally cracked perpetual motion, that he had achieved the seemingly impossible dream. Before long Redhefer was getting quite rich off of his oddball machine, and there was much excited speculation that he had actually done it and achieved true perpetual motion, despite raised eyebrows from the scientific community. Redheffer, emboldened by the response to his device, actually requested funding from the state of Pennsylvania to build a much larger version, and on January 21, 1813, state inspectors were sent to take a look at the machine before any money would be paid. Unfortunately for Redheffer, he had never let anyone ever take a good, close at his device, and it would soon become apparent why.

The inspectors arrived and were immediately suspicious when it turned out they could only view it through a window into a locked room. Even so, there were cracks appearing in Redheffer’s claims when it was noticed that the gear cogs were worn down in such a way as to suggest that the weights, shaft, and large gear were not powering the smaller gear, as Redheffer claimed, but rather the other way around. To them this was an obvious hoax, but the way they dealt with it is rather amusing. Rather than call out Redheffer on his scam, inspector Nathan Sellers hired a local engineer by the name of Isaiah Lukens to build a replica that was more compact and set within a solid baseboard with a square piece of glass at the top. There was no discernible way as to why it could work, yet concealed within the machine was a wind able motor that was wound through the covert use of a wooden decorative finial. With a little sleight of hand, the illusion was nearly perfect, and when he saw it Redheffer himself was so incredibly surprised to see what he took to be a real perpetual motion machine that he allegedly secretly offered Lukens a large amount of money to know the secret. After this, the news did the rest of the work and Redheffer was undone and exposed through a taste of his own medicine.

Amazingly, this did not put a stop to Redheffer. Undeterred, he simply moved to New York to set up shop there where his reputation hadn’t been as tarnished, once again enjoying some amount a fame and drawing in droves of curiosity seekers. One of these was an engineer by the name of Robert Fulton, who noticed something fishy as he observed the mysterious device in action. He could see a slight wobble to it, and also noticed a very slight unevenness to its speed and the sounds it made, both things that should not be present in a real perpetual motion device. A real device of this type would need to be frictionless and perfectly silent because friction and sound would be a loss of energy, so these were glaring clues that something was off, especially to his trained eye. Realizing that it was obviously being somehow powered by crank motion, Fulton confronted Redheffer on the spot, but the inventor amazingly held his ground, insisting that the machine was real.

Fulton then challenged Redheffer to allow him to search for any possible source of outside power, to which Redheffer foolishly agreed. After this, Fulton simply tore out a section of wall in full view of a gathered audience to find a concealed cable that led to an upstairs room, where an old man was found operating a crank. The spectators, who had all paid good money to see the amazing “perpetual motion machine,” were less than thrilled. They reportedly immediately took out their frustrations on the machine itself, smashing it to pieces, and might have done the same to Redheffer if he hadn’t already hi-tailed it out of there to later skip town. Unbelievably, Redheffer would claim several years later that he had created another machine, and that it was totally, for sure real this time, and he even got a patent for it in 1920, but since it was never put on display or examined and the patent was lost in a fire who knows if there was any truth to it.

Another notable perpetual motion machine was unveiled in 1979 by American inventor Joseph Newman. The machine was called the DC motor, and according to him worked by using “energy in a magnetic field consisting of matter in motion,” and which he claimed could produce more energy than was put into it. He even went about seeking a patent for his invention, but it was denied as the Patent Office could not see how it could feasibly work. When Newman appealed this decision, it was found in an investigation by the National Bureau of Standards that the device’s power output was never above 100% of the power supplied to it, which was not promising. Newman would continue to adamantly insist that his machine really worked, but he sort of fell into obscurity after making all manner of other crackpot claims over the years. Whether his supposed perpetual motion machine ever really worked or not remains unknown, but everything we know about science says probably not.

Interestingly, the United States Patent and Trademark Office gets a steady stream of proposals for perpetual motion machines even today, to the point where the whole patent system was changed because of it. Whereas previously a working model of an invention was not required, only that an examiner believe the concept could work or saw no reason why it shouldn’t, the USPTO Manual of Patent Examining Practice has been changed to refuse perpetual motion machine patents that do not have a physical prototype that can be examined. The United Kingdom Patent Office also has a policy against perpetual motion machines, stating “Processes or articles alleged to operate in a manner which is clearly contrary to well-established physical laws, such as perpetual motion machines, are regarded as not having industrial application.”

The reality of perpetual motion seems to be beyond us, and these patent offices realize this, yet people keep on trying, with new designs put out all of the time and not a single one of them that has been shown to actually work without some sort of trickery. The universe seems to be dead set on never allowing it to happen, so why do they keep trying? There are likely several factors. One is that the idea is so irresistible that for many it seems that it is worth pursuing no matter what the obstacles. Another is probably that for some it seems like a challenge, a way to break through long held paradigms like the revolutionary explorers, inventors and scientists of the past. After all many of the facts and laws of the universe that we take for granted now were once equally scoffed at and in some cases might as well have been magic. For these people there is a chance, no matter how small, that a way can be found to make perpetual motion work despite the physical limitations. On top of all of this is the unfortunate possibility that many of these would-be inventors simply don’t grasp the established impossibility of it all, and one Donald Simanek, a former physics professor at Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania, has offered his opinion on why people keep trying perpetual motion in an interview with Live Science:

My hunch is that they are motivated by their incomplete understanding of physics. The perpetual motion machine inventors’ view of physics is a collection of unrelated equations for specific purposes. They fail to grasp the greatest strength of physics — its logical unity. For example, the laws of thermodynamics do not arise by fiat. They are derivable from Newton’s laws and the kinetic model of gases and have been well-tested experimentally … You can’t simply discard one law you ‘don’t like’ without bringing the whole logical structure of physics crashing down.

Could there be some place where the geometry (and the physics) are different? Maybe, but we have no clue where to find that place, and one might wonder whether we could even go there, or exploit it for our purposes. That’s armchair speculation, and science-fiction, not science.

For now, the notion of a real working perpetual motion machine really does sit in the realm of science fiction, and it has mostly been a pursuit abandoned by most real scientists. It has come to be relegated to mad inventors working in their garages against all odds to try and make the impossible possible. There is little chance that there will ever be a practical solution to the physical hurdles in the way of achieving perpetual motion, but just as many have tried throughout history there are surely those who will still keep on trying. Whether it will ever gain any credence or results remains to be seen.

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