Perpetual Motion Machine Remains Elusive Prize

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A circa-1920 Norman Rockwell magazine cover illustration depicting a puzzled inventor trying to perfect a perpetual motion machine.

Remember the little glass “drinking birds” that were a craze during the 1950s and ’60s? Seemed like perpetual motion, didn’t it? Well, I guess it was – until all the water evaporated, at which point it required someone’s energy to replenish the liquid.

For centuries, dreamers, inventors, and charlatans have been searching for “perpetual motion,” or the machine that, once started, will run forever while generating enough power to not only run itself, but do useful work besides. So far, no one has actually come up with such a machine, but someone is always trying to get something for nothing, especially when it comes to energy or power, so folks keep trying.

One of the first references to a “wheel that would run forever” turned up in 1150 by an Indian mathematician named Bashkara II. Leonardo da Vinci left sketches of several unbalanced wheels and other devices that he hoped would produce free energy.

Over the years, wheels with magnets, unbalanced wheels, windmills whose turning vanes operated bellows that blew the air to turn those same vanes, and water wheels that pumped the water to turn themselves have all been tried, along with many other crazy ideas. All these schemes have run into friction and the laws of gravity and kinetic energy and, so far at least, none have been successful.

Visionary inventor, or a fraud?

Charles Redheffer built a perpetual motion machine that he claimed was powered by heavy weights on inclined platforms. He showed up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1812 to put his machine on public exhibit (“for gentlemen”) at an admission price of $5; “female visitors gratis.”

Many people believed in the thing, but a few didn’t. Isaiah Lukens, a local clockmaker and mechanic, knew Redheffer was a fraud but couldn’t get close enough to prove it and, apparently later, built a small model of Redheffer’s gadget for the Philadelphia Museum.

It, of course, didn’t work but Lukens secretly powered the thing with a hand-wound clockwork motor and fooled even Redheffer himself into thinking it was real, thus tricking the trickster who offered a sum of money to purchase the device (Lukens didn’t claim it was a perpetual motion machine, merely a model of a device alleged to be such).

Mechanicians’ curiosity piqued

An interesting tale comes from Early Engineering Reminiscences (1815-40), by George Escol Sellers of Philadelphia. In 1816, when George was about 8 years old, his father, Coleman Sellers, and grandfather, Nathan Sellers, both accomplished “mechanicians,” took him along on a visit to see Redheffer’s exhibit, which was still packing them in – Sellers mentions “the lines of carriages in waiting,” and the many pedestrians.

Sellers described the machine as having a stone base that was inset with a cast-iron bearing for an upright wooden shaft about 10 or 12 feet tall and some 12 inches in diameter. A cast-iron gudgeon (a socket-like, cylindrical fitting attached to one component to enable a pivoting or hinging connection to a second component) on the bottom end of the shaft rested in the bearing, while the top end was set into a journal in a cross beam, with the shaft free to rotate.

Toward the bottom of the shaft was a large wooden gear maybe 10 feet in diameter, the outer edges of which were suspended from a small wheel at the top of the shaft by light iron rods. Around the outer edge of the gear’s platform ran a circular “narrow gauge tramway.”

Wilting under close examination

On these tracks were several four-wheeled cars, each with a platform inclined at a 45-degree angle. The teeth of this large gear meshed with a small-diameter, wooden pinion gear on another vertical shaft mounted in a similar way as the main shaft. At the top of this second shaft was a bevel gear driving a matching bevel gear on a short horizontal shaft. On the shaft was a V pulley that drove a grindstone by means of a rawhide belt.

When Redheffer placed 50-pound lead weights on the inclined car platforms, the big gear slowly began to turn and the awed spectators were invited to sharpen their pocketknives on the grindstone. The grindstone itself was placed right next to a partition with wooden boxes covering the journals, supposedly to keep the grit out of the bearings.

Although Redheffer kept spectators at a distance from the machine “for safety reasons,” Coleman Sellers was very suspicious and managed to get close enough to slip some bits of paper between the teeth of the large and the small gears. The impressions on the paper proved beyond doubt that the big gear was being driven by the smaller gear instead of the other way around. Sellers denounced Redheffer to the public and he took his machine and left Philadelphia.

Charlatan exposed

Sometime later, Redheffer exhibited his perpetual motion in New York, again charging admission, and Robert Fulton of the Clermont steamboat fame viewed the exhibit. Fulton’s ear, sensitive to any slight variance in the sound of machinery, detected an uneven motion in the machine and told everyone it was being powered by a crank.

Supposedly, the old guy was sitting on a stool chewing a bread crust held with one hand while turning a crank to drive the magnificent perpetual motion machine with the other. The angry crowd destroyed the machine and Redheffer faded from sight.

A similar idea, but using water instead of weighted balls. Water in the upper tank flowed from the spout at the right to turn the large wheel, which through several gears turned the vertical shaft as well as the grindstones at the left. The vertical shaft was geared so as to turn the angled Archimedes screw that pumped water from the lower tank to the upper. Water to cool the grindstone was taken from the top tank as well; a feature that guaranteed the water supply would soon run out and need to be replenished, requiring outside energy.

If it sounds too good to be true …

One might think such pipedreams couldn’t exist in the 21st century, but they do. In 2006, two Irish businessmen organized a company called Steorn to manufacture and sell a “free energy technology system” named Orbo. Consisting of a series of magnets positioned around a central wheel (not a new idea), the thing was claimed to produce 285 percent more energy than it took to spin it.

In July 2007, Steorn invited a number of scientists to the Kinetica Museum in London to check out the machine. Unfortunately, the demonstration was canceled at the last minute due to “technical problems (which) arose during the installation of the demonstration unit in the display case.” The public demonstration was postponed until “… a future date.” Maybe they couldn’t find a little old man who would turn the crank for nothing but bread crusts.

Perhaps someday a true “perpetual motion” will become a reality, but if it does, the scientific community and the engineers will have to rewrite the laws of physics. FC

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements, and related items. Contact Sam by email at

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