Would an eighteenth-century inventor Johann Ernst Elias Bessler be the only man to have perfected the long sought perpetual motion machine? Such a device has been the goal of scientists and inventors for many centuries. Many have claimed to have found the secret but to this day, the claim has never been realized. Or so we have been told.
Perpetual motion has been described as ‘the action of an appliance that, once set in motion, would continue in motion forever, with no additional energy required to maintain it.’ Scientists insist that such a contraption is impossible on the grounds that it violates the principles of the first and second laws of thermodynamics. The first law of thermodynamics is essentially a statement of the conservation of energy. The second law has several statements the most assertive of which is that heat flows spontaneously from hotter to colder places. The discovery of a method of achieving perpetual motion would mean a direct contradiction of those laws and it would bring to the human race a virtually free and limitless source of power. In such a context it is easy to see why claims such as those by the upstart Irish company Steorn (made in a recent full-page ad in the British magazine The Economist) of possessing such a capability have provoked such a storm of incredulity and derision.
Johann Bessler was also known by the assumed name of Orffyre, an encryption of ‘Bessler’ and also by the name of Orffyreus, a Latinized version. He was born in Zittau in Saxony in 1680 but little is known about his earlier years other than that he studied theology, medicine and painting before becoming interested in mechanics. He first appeared in 1712 in the town of Gera just east of Dresden where he exhibited what he called a ‘self-moving wheel.’ Measured three feet in diameter and four inches thick, it could be started with a slight push and could quickly pick up speed. It could lift a seven pound weight. From this start, Bessler built a bigger wheel, 6.5 feet in diameter and four inches thick. Once set in motion, it was capable of lifting much larger weights. The people of Gera were not impressed, they did not understand the value of what he was demonstrating, also they did not like his boastful manner, and he was described as having a talent for making enemies.
Disappointed at the reception he received in Gera, he moved to nearby Drashwitz a year later. There he began the construction of a larger wheel. Over nine feet in diameter and six inches thick, this one could turn at fifty revolutions per minutes and lift a weight of forty pounds.
Bessler was better received here than he had been in Gera and his wheel was put on public display. Over several months many learned men came to examine the wheel. All cconcluded that there could be no trickery involved.
It was at this time that Bessler moved to the small independent state of Hesse-Cassel where his work came to the attention of Prince Karl, the reigning Landgrave (a title which gave a count jurisdiction over a territory in medieval Germany.) The prince was a man very interested in the development of scientific ideas and he appointed Bessler as Town Councillor and offered him rooms in the ducal castle at Weissenstein where he could continue his work.
In the castle, Bessler constructed his largest wheel to date, 12 feet in diameter and 14 inches thick. Prince Karl was very impressed and proposed a test. On November 12, 1717 the wheel was locked into a room in the castle with all the doors and windows sealed. Prince Karl and several learned local dignitaries were present. The wheel was set in motion at 26 revolutions per minute.
Two weeks later, the seals were broken and the room was opened. The wheel was still revolving. The room was sealed once again and was kept that way until January 4, 1718—a period of ten months. When the room was opened, the wheel was still revolving at 26 revolutions per minute.
The result of this impressive experiment attracted widespread attention and large numbers of engineers and scientists demanded to know how the wheel operated and how they could participate in its development. Aware of the immense potential of such a device Prince Karl—at the instigation of the suspicious Bessler—provided a guard whereupon Bessler himself hired a guard to watch the guard! The Royal Society heard of the experiment and approached Bessler who refused to give them any information but offered to sell it for twenty thousand pounds. This was an exorbitant sum of money in those days.
Prince Karl often remarked that Bessler’s wheel was so simple he was surprised that no one had discovered it before. He described it as ‘a simple arrangement of weights and levers.’ Bessler’s explanation for his creation was that he had conceived a system whereby the weights on one side of the wheel were farther from the axle than the weights on the other side of the wheel. The secret, he said, lay in the ingenious manner in which the weights on the ascending side of the wheel were prevented from following their normal path next to the rim.
It was apparently well established that the wheels were very light and well balanced. Noises were heard whenever parts were known to move over one another. The increase in power (not speed) was said to be directly proportional to the diameter of the wheel. The device acted as a brake if it sped too fast. Weights were installed at the periphery of the wheel and weights were known to swing inside the wheel. It had to be started with a push. If it were merely turned, it would not start. Bessler never made any effort to conceal the fact that his machine was set in motion by weights.
Among the many scientists who had expressed interest in Bessler’s wheel were the renowned Professor William s’Gravesende of Leyden; Doctor Wolf Dietrich of Bohsen; the well-known Friedrich Hoffman, a physician and authority in mechanics; Baron Fischer, architect to the emperor of Austria; and Christian Wolff, the Chancellor of the University of Halle. All of these learned scholars and acknowledged experts in their field were among the many who witnessed tests of the wheel and all of whom declared the wheel to be the genuine article and that no trickery was involved.
Professor s’Gravesende wrote to his close associate, Sir Isaac Newton, ‘The inventor has a turn for mechanics but is far from being a profound mathematician and yet his machine has something in it prodigiously astonishing.’ Baron Fischer wrote, ‘I am very incredulous about things which I do not understand yet I must assure you that I am quite persuaded that there exists no reason why this machine should not have the name of Perpetual Motion given to it.
John Rowley, a well-known maker of mathematical instruments, asserted that he had seen Orffyreus’ Wheel in action and that he had no doubt it was a genuine Perpetual motion machine.
The quest for the elusive means of obtaining free energy dates back at least as far as the Sysyadhivrddhida, a Hindu document from 748. In it, the astronomer, Lalla, described a self-rotating wheel driven by mercury moving along curved spokes. In 1159, another Hindu named Bhaskara proposed a wheel with containers of mercury around its rim. As the wheel turned, the mercury moved in the containers in such a way that the wheel would always be heavier on one side. In 1235, Villard de Honnecourt prepared a thirty-three page manuscript describing a perpetual motion machine.
In 1570, Johannes Taisnierus, a Jesuit priest, caused a stir in the scientific community with his magnetic engine. The theory of this contraption was a permanent magnet that pulls an iron ball up an incline. The ball falls back down the incline where it was pulled up by the magnet. The device was one of many utilizing the obvious attractions of the magnet as a power source that failed to be successful despite the simplicity of the concept. Cromwell Varley in 1867 proposed the use of the earth’s magnetic field to run a generator but his proposition came to nothing.
In the 1760s, the renowned James Cox described a perpetual motion machine which was known as ‘Cox’s Timepiece.’ Powered by changes in atmospheric pressure, the clock still exists today.
John Gamgee developed what he called an ammonia motor which would propel ships using liquid anhydrous ammonia as the working fluid. Liquid ammonia boils at a low temperature—much lower than that of sea water. Gamgee proposed a liquid ammonia boiler to absorb heat from sea water near temperatures as low as 0 degrees C. The ship would extract some of the energy from the sea water. Shafts and propellers would return this energy to the ocean. The idea had a short life as it failed to sustain the concept of Perpetual Motion.
Robert Fludd and Robert Boyle were among the many other well-known scientists who attempted to solve the puzzle of perpetual motion. Robert Fulton, well known as the man who developed the first commercially successful steam boat, also attempted to find the secret.
Cromwell Varley in 1867 offered a zerometer which attempted to use the earth’s magnetic field to induce enough field strength in the stator windings to get a generator running.
Unfortunately it did not keep the generator going.
In more recent times, the work of Nikola Tesla has attracted a lot of attention. Tesla claimed to be able to tap into radiant energy sources utilizing high frequency, high voltage currents interacting with the aether. Demonstrations were conducted in which 50 kilowatts of power were generated for several days from an antenna connected to a series of transformers, capacitors and other electronic equipment. Unfortunately Tesla died before these experiments could be verified and patents granted.
The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has made an official policy of refusing to grant patents for perpetual motion machines without a working model. Several patents have been granted for motors that are claimed to run without net energy input. These patents were issued because it was not obvious from the patent that a perpetual motion machine was being claimed.
Some scientists and engineers have today come to accept the possibility that the current understanding of the laws of physics may be incomplete or incorrect. It is conceded that a perpetual motion device may not be truly impossible, but overwhelming evidence is required to justify the rewriting of the laws of physics. Any proposal for the design of a perpetual motion device offers a challenge to physicists. We believe we know that perpetual motion cannot be achieved because the so-called laws of thermodynamics tell us so; but the question becomes “how can we prove that it does not work and how can we explain why it does not work?”
It is, of course, possible to obtain an approximation of a perpetual motion of some kind by minimizing friction. Planetary systems—planets, moons, stars—rotate without any fuel or batteries or other limited power. However, planets, it is believed, do not rotate forever even though their life may be extremely long. Planets and electrons, it is argued, have no significant friction or drag because the momentum of the object is thousands of time stronger than the slowing down effect caused by the friction in the system.
In the case of Orffyreus’ wheel, the argument by some that the machine is moved by external power provides a possible explanation of the mystery. But such techniques have been employed many times by seekers of the secret— usually men who had no scruples about using underhanded means—but without similar success.
Orffyreus (Johannes Bessler) died at the age of 65. He took his secret with him to the grave. He said that he had shared the secret with only one man and that was Prince Karl, the Landgrave, who had been permitted the view the inside of the wheel. Prince Karl left descriptions of the wondrous machine but they are vague and unhelpful, referring only to a system of weights and strings.
So the secret of Orffyreus’ wheel remains a mystery.
It defies credibility that the goal of perpetual motion should have been achieved by a machine nearly three hundred years old, however miraculous. Nevertheless, the search continues . . .