Why Won’t They Work?


Later in 1813, a machine identical to Redheffer’s, and possibly exhibited by him, appeared in New York, and Robert Fulton, who had launched the Clermont six years earlier, was induced by some of his friends to visit the exhibit. Shortly after he entered, Fulton exclaimed, “Why, this is a crank motion.” His sensitive ears had detected the uneven sound, induced by unequal velocity, which is typical of the motion imparted by a crank, rather than of the rotary motion implied by the machine. Fulton declared the machine a fraud and denounced the exhibitor to his face as an impostor. When the spectators became embroiled in the argument, Fulton declared that he would expose the machine or pay for any damage he did to it. Thereupon he knocked away a few thin pieces of wood which fastened the contrivance to the wall. Inside, a loop of catgut was moving at a fairly steady pace. Speculating that the gut ran up through the wall and along the ceiling above, Fulton started exploring the second floor of the building. Finally, according to his biographer, C. D. Golden, he threw open a door at the back of the house, where he discovered the true motive power—a poor old wretch with an immense beard who appeared to have suffered long imprisonment. He was unconscious of what had happened below and was seated on a stool gnawing a slice of bread which he held in one hand while turning a crank with the other. The irate mob demolished the machine, and the promoter vanished.

The infamous Keely Motor of 1874 was another perpetual-motion fraud, as well-known in its day as the equally spurious Cardiff Giant. John Worrell Keely was a good mechanic, but an even better talker; when the smooth words flowed, nearly everyone within earshot believed. In a typical demonstration, Keely would start his machine, which seemed to run on water, either by striking a tuning fork or playing a tune on a harmonica, and it would run until he stopped it. A master of scientific double talk, Keely called his mechanism successively a “vibratory generator,” a “hydro-pneumaticpulsating-vacu-engine,” and an “energy liberator.”

For twenty-five years the machine ran, and the smooth words flowed. Always Keely needed “just a little more money” to perfect it. He even claimed that it could propel a large ocean liner from New York to Liverpool and back on a gallon of ordinary water. His technical terms became even more mystifying and alluring, and he talked of “molecular vibration,” “sympathetic equilibrium,” and “oscillation of the atom.”

When the fraud was at last discovered, it turned out that water indeed played its role. The house in which the machine had been demonstrated had been remodeled and contained a high-pressure hydraulic system connected almost invisibly to the machine.

As late as March, 1899, McClure’s Magazine carried a startling article on a machine invented by one Charles E. Tripler of New York. If the machine worked (and the writer of the article seemed to underwrite its authenticity), it would make perpetual motion not only possible but almost inevitable. The writer was Ray Stannard Baker, a man who was to become something of a figure in American history—eminent author, historian, government agent, and friend and confidant of Woodrow Wilson. At the invitation of Mr. Baker, two scientists visited Tripler’s laboratory for a demonstration. Though an appointment had been made, the time proved “not to be convenient” for Tripler, and the scientists never examined the machinery. There never was, indeed there never is, a convenient examination for such devices. This is almost another law of physics.

Again in 1902 a civil engineer presented a paper that implied the possibility of perpetual motion at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The second law of thermodynamics is fallacious [argued the inventor]. The effect of an operation can always be reversed, and when produced by an operation which is made irreversible by the unrestrained or unbalanced action of some particular element or elements, can be reversed by another irreversible operation made irreversible by the unrestrained action of another element or elements having an opposing action to the first mentioned element or elements.

I wish to contribute the above statement to Physical Science.

It is quite a contribution.

But one kind of “perpetual motion” is, after all, quite possible. Let inventors take heart; or better, read a book by a mathematician named Mudie, published as far back as 1836, and called Popular Mathematics: It is not difficult to calculate (upon mathematical principles) that if we could give any piece of matter a motion round the earth at the rate of about five miles a second, or 1,800 miles an hour, and keep up the motion at this rate, we should overcome the gravitation of that piece of matter. This is what may be regarded as the possible case of perpetual motion.

The multiplication is a little off, but who, conscious of sputniks circling the earth endlessly, can deny that this was right?