- Historic Sites
Why Won’t They Work?
The search for perpetual motion is a tragicomedy of obsessed inventors, an eager faith, and humbug
April 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 3
In 1868, the Journal published a follow-up: About fourteen years ago we published the first description of a machine invented by Mr. James G. Hendrickson of Freehold, N.J. … [and] we saw no reason why it would not go until it was worn out. The inventor was an old man, who had spent his whole life in pursuit of the object he had now attained. He was invited to be present at various fairs and exhibitions of new inventions, and wherever he went, his machine formed one of the chief attractions. The professors were all against him. Accordingly, Mr. H. was seized at Keyport, N.J., for practising “jugglery” under the “Act for Suppressing Vice and Immorality.” To expose the supposed trick, an axe was brought, and the cylinder splintered into fragments. Alasl There was no concealed spring, and the machine had “gone of itself.” He made a new machine. His model once more completed, was constructed of brass, hollow throughout. The moment the blocks were taken out, the wheels started off “like a thing of life"; and, during ten months, it never once stopped. The inventor had perfected two new machines, and made a very comfortable livelihood exhibiting them, prosecuting his efforts meanwhile to secure his patent. Age crept upon him, however, before this point was reached; and last Saturday afternoon he breathed his last at Freehold. The night after his death his shop was broken open, and both models stolen. (!)
Here was a field made to order for fakers, and all kinds of humbugs were built to fleece a gullible public. Perhaps the most notable of these devices, and certainly the most fascinating, was the Redheffer perpetual-motion machine, described many years later by Daniel Hering. It was twice exposed, once by a pair of trained eyes, and again by a pair of sensitive and famous ears.
Charles Redheffer (or Redhoeffer) first appeared with his marvelous machine in Philadelphia in 1812. He installed it in a home on the city’s outskirts, charging admission to watch it run, seemingly as long as he wished. Soon Philadelphia became embroiled in an argument as to whether this really was the long-sought perpetual motion. Huge wagers were made as to its authenticity. Charles Gobert, a civil engineer (perhaps in the pay of Redheffer), placed the following announcement in the Philadelphia Gazette , July 12, 1813: I hereby offer, on demand, any bet or bets from 6,000 to 100,000 dollars, to the end of proving, in a few days, both by mathematical data and three several experiments, to the satisfaction of enlightened judges, chosen by my very opponents out of the most respectable gentlemen of this city, or of New York, that Mr. Redheffer’s discovery is genuine, and that it is incontestibly a perpetual self-moving principle … This is to be valid until the 15th inst., at sunsetting.
At this juncture, the Pennsylvania legislature took an interest and appointed a commission of eminent engineers to decide upon the validity of Redheffer’s machine, probably the only time in American history that a perpetual-motion machine was so dignified.
On the appointed day the commission appeared at the house and found it locked. No one answered the bell. However, through a barred window the commissioners could see the machine working in lonely magnificence. It consisted of weighted cars continually ascending and descending inclined planes. A shaft was geared to it, apparently to perform useful work.
One of the commissioners, Nathan Sellers, had brought along his son, Coleman, reputed to be a mechanical genius. Peering through the window, young Sellers noticed something which escaped the attention of the adults. At the point where the shaft was geared to the mechanism, the cogged wheels were a bit worn, and they were worn on the wrong side of the cogs . Only one conclusion was possible: instead of powering the shaft, the mechanism was powered by the shaft.
When the lad told his father what he had seen, the senior Sellers hired a skilled mechanic to make a machine identical to Redheffer’s, except that it was driven by a spring concealed in an ornamental post (a device that was to become a favorite of later fakers). Redheffer, brought to see the machine, was thunderstruck. He believed in it instantly. Here, to his mind, was real perpetual motion. Young Sellers had done what he had only claimed to do. He tried to buy out the lad, offering him a handsome share of the profits that could be made from this, the true perpetual motion.