Why Won’t They Work?

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The idea of perpetual motion—something for nothing under the laws of physics—is as insidious as any in history. It will not lie down and die. To this day, the persistence of the idea is the one thing perpetual about it. The Patent Office is still pestered by single-minded inventors of “self-motors,” the technical section of the Library of Congress is haunted by furtive figures, and editors of scientific magazines regularly receive correspondence from dreamers with “new” plans for solving the most famous scientific problem of all time.

Over the decades, indeed centuries, each inventor of this sort seems to have lived sealed off from the rest of the world, working in the perfect vacuum that he so avidly desired to make his contraption spin forever. Everything has been tried—overbalanced wheels, rolling weights, water wheels endlessly pumping their own water, inclined planes, squirrel cages with steel squirrels forever pursuing a magnet, even rings of balloons inflating under water, hopefully ad infinitum , to lift themselves to the surface.

In time perpetual motion became a true scientific puzzle, with set rules. The device, once completed, had to move and continue forever (or until the parts wore out) without any assistance except from gravity, buoyancy, or magnetism. This immediately ruled out all schemes to use the daily variations in temperature and air pressure or the constant motion of waves and tides. If the machine could do useful work, so much the better, but the machine did not have to be useful—it just had to keep going;.

The first efforts at perpetual motion in this country probably predated the Revolution, but the idea had been born in some fertile brain long before. It is believed that Leonardo da Vinci dallied with it. The first printed reference to the problem occurs in 1579, and the earliest British patent for a perpetual-motion machine was granted March 9, 1635. Then, between 1855 and 1903, nearly six hundred applications were made to the British Patent Office.

The obsession leaped the Atlantic and found a fertile field in the United States. An unknown number of perpetual-motion patents (believed to be about ten) were granted and on file in the Patent Office when the building burned in 1836. Letters of patent continued to be granted until it became apparent that perpetual motion was an illusion.

As early as 1828 the journal of the Franklin Institute carried a long explanation of why “perpetual motion” could not be perpetual. When they accepted the principle of the conservation of energy, propounded around 1850 by Joule and others, scientists as a whole tacitly denied the possibility of a perpetuum mobile , and at last the government took the stand, which it maintains to this day, that an application for a perpetual-motion patent must include a working model.

But once the notion had fired a man’s brain, he could not be convinced that perpetual motion was impossible. American inventors simply ignored the discouraging statements of scientists. Their heyday, which stretched from about 1825 to 1910, was a period of optimism, when many long-sought goals were attained. Steam performed new wonders, sewing machines made stitches, carriages ran without horses, and airplanes flew like birds. These marvels achieved, what layman would doubt that water could eventually be made to run uphill by itself, or that a wheel could be designed to be constantly heavier on one side than on the other and so spin forever? Newspapers were believers, too; the Philadelphia Gazette reported in 1829: We were much gratified yesterday with the result of an examination of a self-moving machine, which may be seen at Bowlsby’s Merchants’ Hotel, in Slater Street, and which the inventor calls perpetual motion. We have no doubt of it being nearer a perpetual self-moving principle than any invention which has preceded it, and as near as any we shall ever see. The great merit, aside from its practical uses, is its simplicity, and the certainty and readiness with which you perceive that it covers no trick or deception.

Anyone, including editors, who believed in a particular device seems to have clung to his belief with the tenacity of the inventor himself. A shining example of such loyalty appeared in the New York Journal of Commerce, which in 1854 described a machine invented by one J. G. Hendrickson: The model was in our office yesterday, and attached to some clockwork, which it turned without once stopping to breathe. We see no reason why it should not go until worn outl After a careful examination, we can safely say, in all seriousness, that the propelling power is self-contained and self-adjusting, and gives sufficient force to carry ordinary clockwork, and all without any winding up or replenishing.