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A Story from a book called Foibles and Fallacies of Science
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This is a story from a book called FOIBLES AND FALLACIES OF
SCIENCE, written by Mr.Daniel Hering in 1924.
History relates several types of perpetual motion machines. The
inventor's motives range from the ideal of pure invention to an
attempt to defraud the public. Perpetual motion machines have been
traced back for several hundred years.
As of this date there has been no known account of a working
perpetual motion machine which can be built and demonstrated by
anyone other than the inventor. Although, we have heard many
claims, we have yet to see a working model. This does not rule
out the possibility that one could actually be made and
The U.S.Patent Office receives about one hundred applications a
year on perpetual motion machines but they are usually rejected by
the office, without research into their workability.
The keywords which bring about the rejection are perpetual motion.
contributed by Ron Barker
Visit a workshop - it matters little what shop, or where -
talk with the mechanic skilled or unskilled, his name is Legion,
and you will find that he has present in his mind or discarded in
his garret a device for perpetual motion. You would be likely to
make the same discovery if you consulted a clerk in a counting
house, a minister in his study, or the president of a bank.
Turn to the man of all men in the whole country who is most
familiarly associated with the wizardry of invention - perhaps you
know his name - and see if he has not at some time been inoculated
with this same virus. When it began to work cannot be known but
historically this "folly" is not so old as some of the others.
While the baffling mathematical problems and the search for
their solution date back several thousands of years, authentic
records of The Perpetual Motion Machine are probably not more than
five hundred or six hundred years old, but of the many mechanical
vagaries unquestionably this has been the most absorbing. If, by a
machine that would produce perpetual motion, we mean simply a
contrivance that will go on indefinitely without human or animal
assistance, the problem is not only solvable but is in the
constant act of being solved.
With the ordinary forces of nature any machine may be kept
continually in operation. The incessant flow of water over a
waterfall is perpetual motion, and needs only a wheel placed under
the falling water to communicate power to other machinery. The
turbines under Niagara are examples.
Alternations of temperature which cause a body to expand and
contract will accomplish the same result. "Perpetual Motion" as a
mere fact is a commonplace of science if it is not understood to
imply a perpetual supply of power from nowhere.
The ceaseless flow of rivers, the incessant tides, the
movements of the earth and other heavenly bodies are perpetual
notion, sufficient for all human purposes. But these do not
express the purpose of the inventors of perpetual motion. Their
idea was and is to produce a device which, when set going, would
of itself develop power enough to keep it in operation without
drawing upon extraneous sources. The effect of gravity, whether
helpful or harmful, was always within their purview, but no other
The inventions have been of multifarious design, employing
about every known principle of mechanics and some that are not
known, but they all fall into a few classes. One type, comprising
many of the inventions, is some sort of pump to keep enough water
flowing to a waterfall to keep it going.
Another type is a wheel with jointed arms or spokes that hang
down from the side of the hub that is rising, but when passing the
top, an arm swings out into a horizontal position and having a
weight at the end, it propels the wheel. There are always one or
more extended weighted arms on one side of the wheel, to raise the
slack pendent arms on the other side.
Instead of jointed arms the wheel may have radial tubes
containing balls that roll out from the hub to the rim on the side
that is descending, and roll in from the rim to the hub on the
other side, thus serving the same purpose as the arms with weights
at the end. The wheel is overbalanced.
A favorite variation is a clock that shall be self-winding.
Where the winding up has been accomplished by utilizing cleverly
some of the work of the descending weights, this has been as
fallacious as the scheme of pumps.
This type of automatic renewal, like many others that began
honestly, has been exploited fraudulently to victimize the
credulous, by the introduction of some auxiliary contrivance which
is skilfully concealed, and for a while escapes detection. But
genuine self-winding clocks have been constructed, and
consequently perpetual motion, in a qualified sense, has been
secured, by using other natural agencies.
Expansion and contraction of a piece of metal in the clock,
properly geared to the winding machinery has served the purpose
and so, too, has the varying pressure of the atmosphere. But
these, though genuine, are not instances of perpetual motion as
originally understood and sought after.
The Mechanics' Magazine (London, 1823 - 1872) at first opened
its columns freely to the consideration of perpetual motion. No
amount of ridicule or criticism could quench the ardor of the
perpetual motion enthusiasts rather, opposition seemed to
Disappointments were recounted by the editor and
correspondents, and frauds and tricks of all sorts were exposed ;
never were propagandists more steadily admonished or more vainly.
And yet, only the frauds were supported by actual working models ;
in the sincere attempts, the inventors relied wholly upon drawings
and descriptions to establish their contention, with an insistence
that the machine would work, and a challenge to the editor and
everybody else to prove that it would not work, and to show why it
For a long time an impression was general in England that
there was an outstanding offer from the Government of a large
reward for the successful invention of such a machine, and in
spite of the efforts of publishers to correct this error, one
inventor after another asks for information how to proceed to get
the reward, in case his invention is accepted.
In response to such an inquiry, the editor of The Mechanic's
Magazine for January 29, 1848 says :
"No reward has been offered by government;it has done many
foolish things but none so foolish as this. Before our
correspondent wastes any more time on his schemes, let him
first seat himself on a three legged stool, and try to lift
himself by the legs of his stool. If he succeeds in that, he
may go on - the want of government reward notwithstanding."
The mental attitude of present-day seekers after perpetual
motion is severely censured by Mr. Dircks, but his strictures are
founded altogether on the record. He says:
"A more self-willed, self-satisfied, or self-deluded class of
the community, making at the same time pretension to
superior knowledge, it would be impossible to imagine. They
hope against hope, scorning all opposition with ridiculous
vehemence, although centuries have not advanced them one
step in the way of progress."
He enumerates the classes of the people high, low, ignorant,
educated that have essayed to produce the perpetual motion, and
"There is something lamentable, degrading, and almost insane
in pursuing the visionary schemes of past ages ... not a
solitary discovery is on record, not one absolutely
ingenious scheme projected, or one simple self-motive model
accomplished...." - *
* from Perpetuum Mobile: A History of the Search for Self
Motive Power from the 13th to the 19th Century.
But when one has made an illusion part of his very existence
can he welcome its destruction? Is there a more pitiful being in
the world than a man with shattered illusion?
Perpetual Motion inventors are still numerous, and in most
cases are plainly cranky; they are obsessed with the infallibility
of their scheme which, at the worst, lacks only some trifling
change or addition to make it a success and their persistence
makes them actual nuisances. They are always `open to conviction'
but never can or never will see what is wrong about their device,
no matter how plainly it is shown to them. Often their idea is so
crude, so crass, that no intelligent mechanic would fail to see
its absurdity, but in other instances the invention is
diabolically clever, and even if the scientist does appreciate its
fault, he has difficulty in pointing it out or explaining it.
It might be expected that applications for patenting
perpetual motion machines would become embarrassing to the
government unless the Patent Office adopted some definite policy
regarding them. As the impression has prevailed at some times and
places that the U.S. Patent Office had decided to reject outright
all such applications, the author addressed an inquiry to the
Commissioner of Patents as to the attitude of the Office on this
subject. The reply was as follows. (January 25, 1917) :
Department of the Interior
United States Patent Office
Perpetual Motion :
Replying to your recent letter, you are advised that the
Patent Office understands the term `perpetual motion' to mean a
mechanical motion creating energy, that is, a machine doing work
and operating without the aid of any power other than that which
is generated by the machine itself, and which when once started
will operate for an indefinite time.
The views of the Office are in accord with those of the
scientists who have investigated the subject, and are to the
effect that mechanical perpetual motion is a physical
impossibility. These views can be rebutted only by the exhibition
of a working model. Many persons have filed applications for
patent on perpetual motion, but such applications have been
rejected as inoperative and opposed to well known physical laws,
and in no instance has the requirement of the Patent Office for a
working model ever been complied with.
In view of these facts the Office will not now permit such an
application to be filed without a model and this practice has been
adopted in order to save applicants the loss of the fees paid with
their applications. After an application for patent has been
considered by the Examiner the filing fee of $15.00 cannot be
(of course fees have changed radically since 1917...Vangard...)
The failure to submit a working model is doubtless due to the
lack of that `trifling' addition, which cannot affect the validity
of the idea on which the invention rests, but the applicant cannot
risk the danger of being anticipated by some one else, and
therefore cannot afford to wait for the completion of a successful
F. Charlesworth, Assistant Examiner in the British Patent
Office, says that the earliest British patent for a perpetual
Motion machine was granted on March 9, 1635, the method of action
being not described ; the next was in 1662, for an overbalanced
wheel with weights at the ends of jointed arms. Between 1617 and
1903 over six hundred applications had been made to that Office
for Perpetual Motion, all except twenty-five being since 1854.
They were of course greatly varied in character but mainly
mechanical, their operation depending on various agencies -
chiefly gravity, loss of equilibrium, specific gravity of floats
and weights in water or other liquids, receptacles inflated with
air or other gas under water, compression and subsequent expansion
of gases, and surface tension.
So confident were some of the applicants, that they
considered it necessary to include a brake in their machine, that
it might be stopped or restrained from reaching a too high speed.
It was not until the latter part of the eighteenth century
that physical science reached a state of development that seemed
to preclude the possibility of the perpetual motion, and not until
the middle of the nineteenth was its inherent impossibility
believed to have been assured.
This came with the establishment of the doctrine of the
conservation of energy, and the degradation of energy, and yet, as
just stated, nearly six hundred applications were made to the
British Patent Office in the forty-eight years from 1855 to 1903.
Not every mechanic is acquainted with the conservation of energy
as a principle of science, and of those who are, not all can
escape the lurking thought that sources of forms of energy may be
in operation that are not yet recognized either as to their extent
or their mode of action. Again among those who do recognize and
accept this doctrine are some who question the correctness of one
or another supposed law of nature.
They therefore hope that by dodging such a law, or by the
help of some free energy somewhere, they can secure perpetual
motion of a so-called `second kind.'
It will be remembered that the astonishing revelations of
radium and other radioactive substances seemed, at first, to upset
the conservation of energy, and Lord Rayleigh invented a device
which acted continually under such radiation, while apparently the
energy of the source of radiation, while apparently the energy of
the source of radiation was undiminished. He was not so hasty as
some others, however, who were ready to believe that the doctrine
had broken down, and now such perpetual motion is to be regarded
as only one of the second kind, which employs natural agencies not
differing from solar radiation of light or heat, or even from
tidal power in their relation to the problem.
So generally is the impossibility of `The Perpetual Motion'
now recognized among scientific men that when a hypothesis leads
to perpetual motion as its certain result, that fact is regarded
as a proof of error in the hypothesis, like a reductio ad absurdum
in logic or mathematics.
In an early work (1648) entitled "Mathematicall Magick," by
Bishop John Wilkins of Chester, England, its author says :
"The discovery of a `perpetual motion' hath been attempted by
Chymistry. Paracelsus" (d. 1541) "and his followers have
bragged that by their separations and extractions they can
make a little world which shall have he same perpetual
motions with this Microcosme with the representation of all
Meteors, Thunder, Snow, Rain, the courses of the sea, in its
ebbs and flows; and the like. But these miraculous promises
would require as great a faith to believe them as a power to
`At nusquam totos inter qui talia curant
Apparet ullus, qui re miracula tanta
And though they often talk of such great matters, yet we can
never see them confirmed by a real experiment. * And then,
besides, every particular author in that art hath such a
distinct language of his own (all of them being so full of
allegories and affected obscurities), that "tis very hard
for any one (unless he be thoroughly versed among them) to
find out what they mean, much more to try it."
The procedure by which one can obtain a perpetual motion in a
chemical way, for example, is this :
"Mix five ounces of (Mercury=Mercury) with a equal weight of
(Tin=Jupiter); * grind them together with ten ounces of
sublimate; dissolve them in a Cellar upon some marble for
the space of four days till they become like oyl-olive;
distil this with fire of chaff or driving fire, and it will
sublime into a dry substance and so, by repeating of these
dissolvings and distillings, there will be at length divers
small atomes which, being put into a glass that is well
luted and kept dry, will have a perpetual motion."
(Fr. Dirck's Perpetuum Mobile, p.3.)
* The aforementioned letter from the U.S. Patent Office would
indicate that Bishop John Wilkins's ground of complaint against
perpetual motion inventors had not been removed during the
centuries between his time, 1650 and the present.
* The use of planetary symbols for metals was common in early
chemistry and, its is said, began with the Chaldean philosophers
and was continued by their successors in astronomy and astrology.
They associated the heavenly bodies not only with metals, but also
with the organs of the human body. The latter they divided into
twelve parts corresponding to the twelve signs of the zodiac. They
considered the metals to be seven in number, corresponding to the
sun, moon, and five planets, with their symbols as follows :
Gold = Sun
Silver = Moon
Mercury = Mercury
Copper = Venus
Iron = Mars
Tin = Jupiter
Lead = Saturn
It is not quite clear how the Chaldeans could associate the
planet Mercury with the metal mercury, when that metal was not
discovered until more than two hundred years after the Chaldean
empire ceased to exist; but this particular connection may be of
later date than the others. Chaucer writes of this association in
the Canterbury Tales about 1390. In the Canon's Yeoman's Tale, the
Yeoman reels off a long string of scientific nomenclature with
which he was made acquainted in his service of the Cannon, and
enumerates the four spirits and the seven bodies thus:
"The foure spirites and the bodies sevene,
By ordre, as ofte I herde my lord hem nevene.
The firste spirit quyk-silver called is,
The seconde orpyment, the thridde, y-wis,
Sal-armonyak, and the ferthe brymstoon,
The bodyes sevene eek, lo, hem heere anoon!
Sol gold is, and Luna silver we threpe,
Mars iren, mercurie quyk-silver we clepe,
Saturnus leed, and Juppiter is tyn,
And Venus coper, by my fader kyn."
He classes the perpetual motion machines as ;
"1. Those depending upon chymical extractions;
2. By magnetical virtue;
3. By the natural affection of gravity."
According to Bishop Wilkins, hydraulic machines, kept going
by the descent of the liquid which they had raised, were used
earlier than the overbalanced wheel, the earliest and apparently
most attractive form being that in which water was raised from a
cistern by the familiar Screw of Archimedes. The figure
illustrates one variant of the type.
When discharge at the top of the screw the water fell upon
the vanes of a wheel mounted upon the screw shaft, being caught in
a vessel at a lower level and again discharged upon the vanes of
another wheel; and as this operation could be again and again
repeated, the descending water would more than suffice to keep the
machine in operation. This appeared in 1642, but it is difficult
to fix the deserts of these inventions chronologically. In a work
by Robert Fludd, which appeared in 1618, is described a common
water wheel which sets in motion a chain pump by means of a system
of toothed wheels, and the pump is supposed to raise the water
necessary to keep the wheel going.
The accompanying figure is a sketch accredited to Vilard de
Honnecourt, a Gothic architect of the 13th century, who gave a
description of it, and this seems to be the earliest authentic
record of a perpetual motion machine. It represents a wheel with
an odd number of mallet-like weights attached to the rim by a
hinge at the end of the handle. It is supposed that when set
going, the fall of a mallet upon the rim of the wheel gives an
impulse to the latter, and as that action in general places more
of the mallets on the descending side of the wheel than on the
ascending, the motion is continuous!
A number of Honnecourt's free hand sketches, including
this among other, are in the Paris Ecole des Chartes.
(F. Ichak, Das Perpetuum mobile, pp. 8, 9.)
There are, however, allusions indicating that the idea was
not absent from the minds of some of the philosophers, even of
pre-Christian times. Although the seeds were sown so early, they
seemed to germinate and fructify much more rapidly in the Middle
Ages, that period of darkness and superstition, from which so much
of knowledge did actually emerge in a renaissance, but the growth
of this particular vagary has been most vigorous in modern times.
Perpetual motion cannot exist with the principle of
conservation of energy in any machine that has prejudicial
resistances such as friction or the inertia of the surrounding
air, and the establishing of that principle did much toward
quieting the restless spirit, but any apparent contradiction of
this principle reawakens the sleeper. Leonardo da Vince (1452 -
1519) dallied with the problem.
Of the overbalanced wheel, there are many variations.
A famous example of this type was produced by the Marquis of
Worcester, about 1648. No picture of the wheel itself is
available, though a somewhat circumstantial account of a
demonstration with it at the Tower of London is on record, but its
character is that shown in the diagram. Many devices of producing
perpetual motion have been submitted to the author for comment. In
almost every instance they have been more or less ingenuous
variants of earlier inventions.
One suggested by Mr. J. S. Hamilton of New York may be taken
as an innovation inasmuch as it purports to utilize a modern idea,
namely, that of the injector reversed, so as to act as an ejector.
Since an injector, by means of a steam jet, will cause a stream of
water to enter a boiler against a pressure equal to or greater
than that of the steam jet, then, according to this inventor, if a
stream of water flowing out of a cistern at a high level have its
velocity sufficiently increased, it will re-enter the cistern at a
lower point and also do work in its passage external to the
"Starting the turbine from exterior source, (motor or
engine), establishes the vacuum" (below it), says the inventor,
"after which the turbine will run alone. The initial pressure will
seek the vacuum and perform work en route. The water will return
by reason of its increased velocity secured by the nozzling effect
of the passage ways inside the turbine. The entrance gates of a
water turbine nozzle the water, and since the turbines are radial
inward flow, the passage ways in the `runner' are more narrow near
the is increased it will enter, just as the injector has proven
times without number."
A discussion of this with its author would inevitably involve
a discussion of the injector, to say nothing of what is to keep
the turbine in motion if the water, on leaving it, is to have a
greater velocity and therefore more energy, than on entering it;
but it would not be difficult to show that its successful
performance would contradict the conservation of energy. It is
needless to say that this machine never reached the stage of a
With the well-known Principle of Archimedes staring them in
the face, inventors could not be expected long to neglect so
helpful an idea in their attempts to solve the problem of
According to this principle, a body immersed in a liquid is
said to "lose weight," or weigh less than in air. A force that
will lift a stone weighing one hundred pounds in air will lift one
of a hundred and fifty pounds in water, and a block of wood will
not only weigh nothing in water but will rise with a lifting
effort of its own.
As a simple application of this principle, an endless chain
passing around an upper wheel in air and a lower one in water has
ledges or buckets attached to it carrying balls, and as they
descend they enter the water at the foot of the machine and are
carried around the lower wheel, and then, either by the apparatus
itself or by their own buoyancy, the balls are brought up in a
column of water that reaches to the upper wheel, where they are
discharged upon the descending side of the chain.
The preponderance of weight on this side is the driving
force. It is extremely simple (and the believer in it is scarcely
The astonishing thing is the employment of auxiliary pieces
like the balls just mentioned, which are light in the water on one
side of the chain, and heavy on the other, i.e., the descending
side. If the idea were workable at all, the endless belt, a cord,
or chain alone would be sufficient to demonstrate the action
without the help of balls or weights, for the portion in the
column of liquid would be buoyed up and so be lighter than the
other portion of the chain, and the movement would go merrily on.
It was left to a recent inventor to suggest the machine thus
simplified, though he appears to be unaware that the general idea
had occurred to others before him.
A description and discussion of this attempt at the problem
is given by John Phin in his `The Seven Follies of Science.' There
is no difficulty in representing it by a drawing, but the hopeful
aspirant for a patent is met by that discouraging demand for a
"working model," and it seems impossible in practice to get a
column of liquid to stand higher in one vessel than in another
with which it communicates! Various changes have been rung upon
the design, including the buoyant effort of liquids upon vessels
that are inflated in the liquid and deflated outside.
Thus statics, dynamics, hydraulics, pneumatics, all as
branches of mechanics, have been called upon in connection with
gravity; and by less direct action, heat, light, magnetism and
electricity have been invoked in this fruitless endeavor to
inveigle Nature into repudiating her own laws.
Submitted by: Ronald Barker,
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