The Continuous Failure of Perpetual Motion

Like the philosopher’s stone and the perfect Cuban sandwich, the secret of perpetual motion has long been sought by mankind. Over the centuries, brilliant scientists and average Joes alike have tried—and failed—to create perpetual motion machines. We know today that the laws of thermodynamics make perpetual motion literally impossible, but earlier peoples had no such knowledge. Below are brief tales of some of history’s most significant “perpetual motion machines”.



The Magic Wheel

In 8th century CE Bavaria, a device known as the “magic wheel” was created; its “inventor” is lost to history. It was simply a wagon wheel on an axle, affixed to a base, and, once set in motion, the magic wheel would continue to spin for a very, very long time (though not perpetually). Locals at the time, being superstitious folk, thought the wheel was spun by magic. Instead, a series of large magnets around the wheel’s outer rim and a larger stationary magnet on the wheel’s base generated magnetic attraction and repulsion that kept the wheel in motion. Eventually, the wheel would come to a stop due to frictional losses at its central bearing, but it could spin for long enough to freak people out.

Indian mathematician and astronomer Bhāskara II created a thematically similar device, cleverly dubbed Bhāskara’s wheel. Instead of magnets, Bhāskara’s device used the flow of mercury between curved/tilted spokes to generate movement once set in motion. It, too, would eventually stop due to friction.

Maricourt’s Armillary Sphere

In the 13th century CE, French scholar and scientist Petrus Peregrinus de Maricourt—who is also known as Peter Maricourt and is somehow not a Harry Potter character—created a magnetically powered, “automatic” armillary sphere. Based on a design sketch of a perpetual motion machine by Villard de Honnecourt, Maricourt’s armillary sphere was designed to rotate perpetually on its celestial axis, once per day, to mimic the movement of the heavens above.

Cox’s Timepiece

In the late 18th century, James “Big Jim” Cox of jolly ol’ England and John Joseph “Big John Joe” Merlin of Belgium developed “Cox’s Timepiece.” The device operate in essentially the same way as any other mechanical clock of the time, but needed no winding. Cox claimed that it was a perpetual motion machine, and indeed the timepiece did work continuously without any outside intervention. However, as its internal mechanisms are powered by changes in atmospheric pressure via a mercury barometer, this is not true perpetual motion.

Cox’s timepiece still exists, and can be seen at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It no longer functions, however, as it was deactivated prior to being moved to the museum.

Sir Congreve’s Water Machine

In Eighteen-Hundred and Twenty-Seven, English inventor Sir William “Big Bill” Congreve created a convoluted contraption that utilized an endless band of sponge, a separate but equally endless band of weights, a bed of still water, and an inclined plane over pulleys. The sponge would raise water via capillary action, and the bands would turn as the weight of the water exceeded that of the weights, which would in turn squeeze the water out of the sponge as it rotated. This design allowed water to disobey the law of physics that prevents liquids from rising above their own level, which crated a continuous ascent and overflow. Though in theory his design was sound, it proved to be yet another failure in the pursuit of perpetual motion.

Keely’s Fraud

American inventor John Ernst “Big John Ernst” Worrell Keely announced the invention of an induction resonance motion motor, based on “etheric technology”, which even in 1872 must have sounded less than legit. Keely claimed that he had discovered a method of power generation based on the vibrations of tuning forks, and his machine appeared to run on water. Less than a year later, investors in Keely’s machine—who had given him nearly $5 million—accused the inventor of fraud, though no definitive proof was found at the time. After Keely’s death, it was discovered that his machine was powered by hidden air pressure tubes.

Perrigo’s Free Energy Device

In the late 1910s, MIT graduate and Missourian Harry Perrigo claimed to have invented a free energy device that derived its power from “thin air” or “aether waves”. Perrigo successfully demonstrated his device before Congress in December 1917, and had applied for a patent. However, investigators discovered that the device was powered by a hidden, battery-powered motor.

Papp’s Inert Gas Engine

In 1966, Joseph “Big Joe” Papp claimed to have invented an alternative internal combustion engine that ran on inert gases. He was awarded a patent for his perpetual motion device, as well as several others for unrelated inventions. Financial backing for production of his engine was secured from numerous investors, but a public demonstration of his engine resulted in an explosion that killed one observer and injured two others. Noted theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, who was critical of the abstracts of Papp’s patents, noting a poor grasp of theoretic physics and was present at the demonstration, concluded that the explosion was deliberate, an attempt by Papp to avoid the discovery of his hoax; Papp subsequently blamed the explosion on sabotage by Feynman. Papp continued to accept money from investors, but never produced or demonstrated another of his engines.

Photo credit: Tekniska museet via / CC BY