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James Randi Educational Foundation

An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural

Introduction | "R" Reading | Curse of the Pharaoh | End-of-the-World Prophecies

Index | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | Y | Z

perpetual motion This is a pervasive notion that has probably cost more time, money, and mental effort for the crackpots than any other pursuit except for the philosopher's stone.
      The idea that a device, machine, or engine can be designed whereby free energy or work can be obtained simply by setting it into motion has preoccupied inventors for centuries. While “free” power is available through such forces as solar radiation, ocean tides, changes in atmospheric pressure, and flowing water, no device can be constructed that will operate without energy input or that will generate an energy output greater than the energy required to operate it.
      In 1678, the Abbé John of Hautefeuille (1647-1724) designed a machine that would perform continually as a result of the energy provided by warping pine boards subjected to natural changes in humidity, and in 1751 a St. Petersburg inventor named Kratzenstein came up with a thermal energy scheme. These, of course, did not come under the definition of perpetual motion machines since they depended on a natural energy source, in the same way that solar cells, hydroelectric, and various wave- and tidal-change systems do. Similarly, several kinds of timepieces such as the Atmos clock perform continually, powered by changes in barometric pressure.
      By far the larger proportion of inventors of such devices are self-deluded. The rest are intentional frauds. Somewhere in between are those who sincerely believe that their ideas are workable, but are not averse to improving the performance of their creations by means of a little hidden support.
      One of the most famous——and successful——of the fraudulent class of inventors was John Worrell Keely (1837-1898), a Boston man of no appreciable education who managed to raise vast amounts of money from investors who witnessed, at Keely's home, a model of his machine——the Hydro-Pneumatic-Pulsating-Vacuo-Engine——merrily whirring away without an apparent source of energy. Though he spent a short time in prison, he died wealthy and only after his house was torn down was it discovered that a flywheel in the basement connected to concealed tubes in the floors and walls had delivered compressed air to power this and several other models of marvelous machines he had designed.
      The U.S. Patent Office, much to its shame, has actually issued patents on perpetual motion devices and systems, though these “inventions” have never been shown to work. This, in spite of a decision years ago that no patent for such a device would be considered unless a working model was submitted. Recently, a Mississippi man named Joe W. Newman actually obtained signatures from thirty scientists who said his “free energy” machine, which is in actuality a huge direct-current motor powered by a massive stack of batteries, is a valid invention. Newman himself says that when his creation is finally able to be put to work,  

      there will be no more pollution, no more Ethiopias. Deserts will become oases. People will work only one hour a week and have all the material goods they need. Children will have hope. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that my machine is going to bring peace, prosperity and happiness.

      Newman, who holds other valid patents for ideas that really do work——one is a cigarette-making machine, thus showing another of his contributions to mankind——refuses to accept the “perpetual motion” label for his design, insisting that it is a “free energy” idea. However, if the output of his machine is simply connected to the input, he should have an ever-running system. This he has apparently never managed——or tried——to do.
      Perpetual motion/free energy remains a vain notion in the minds of eccentric folks who are intent upon wasting their time and other people's money on a dream. As Arthur Ord-Hume, in his fascinating book Perpetual Motion——the History of an Obsession, says:  

      There must be something in the make-up of the perpetual motionist which, while urging him on in his quest for the impossible, encourages him not to deviate from the well-trodden path to certain failure. . . . Even the alchemist . . . knew when he was beaten.

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