Weighting for Perpetuity
The story of Johann Bessler and his improbable perpetually-moving wheel examined in the light of recent claims of a working over unity, free-energy machine.
Updated version of an article originally published in Fortean Times, April 2007.
Perpetual motion is gaining momentum. Just when you think it is running out of impetus, the subject takes off again. Free-energy designs and machines are being furiously discussed, producing copious excesses of heat and sound. Perhaps it's simply down to all those Tom Mangold programmes about the oil situation.
One of the most famous examples of a supposed perpetual motion machine is that of Johann Bessler’s wheel, which was deemed by many eminent persons of its time to have achieved an aim pursued in European science since the Middle Ages: rotating a weight in such a way that more energy was produced by its fall than was needed to raise it against the force of gravity. The exact circumstances leading to Bessler’s breakthrough are obscure; one story suggests that his inspiration derived from a machine he once saw at a monastery.
For hundreds of years the thinking was that a machine could be built that would somehow be able to ‘trick’ gravity into reacting as if the mass of a weight in motion was less than at when it was at rest. These self-moving machines, usually wheels aligned along the centre of gravity, like waterwheels, always had, as their ingenious component, a way of holding and releasing the weights. If the momentum of the weights could be greater than the combined forces of gravity, friction, and air resistance, such a wheel should actually not only turn by ‘itself’, it should, since it is infinitely travelling downhill, also increase its speed, producing enough surplus force to do work. After Joule's first law of thermodynamics (where energy cannot be created), this objective wasn’t just practically insurmountable, it was officially impossible.
Johann ('Orffyreus') Bessler (c.1680-1745)
Yet by 1712, when he was 32, Bessler, a craftsman who had travelled widely in western Europe, was exhibiting a wheel at his house in Gera, Germany, that could self-rotate at 50 rpm. A statement written and signed by 14 pillars of the local community – aristocrats, doctors, professors – read:
“The long sought after and desired Perpetuum Mobile has been invented… It is a unique and highly useful machine that rotates without any weights, wind, water, or spring mechanisms…
it is also able to easily drive other machines for which a great force is necessary, such as waterworks and mills...”
There’s surely not an inventor alive or dead who wouldn’t frame that for the wall of their workshop. But Bessler did not handle the situation well. Genius he may have been – at least behind closed doors, where it is said he had laboured for 10 years to achieve his goal – but when it came to affairs of business and politics, he failed to see the wider picture. He offered to sell the secret of his wheel for £20,000, a sum worth at least 20 times that today. Before long, accusations of fraud were being made, and Bessler broke up his wheel and left town
Undeterred, he built a bigger version and performed another supervised test before a group headed by Moritz-Wilhelm, Duke of Saxe-Zeitz. Having been present at an occasion on which extraordinary scientific claims were made – in my case, it was seeing Professor Martin Fleischmann (1927-2012) talking about Cold Fusion at the Royal Institution of Great Britain to intakes of breath and disconsolate murmurings from the august gathering – I can imagine what it must have been like for Bessler to face his sceptical critics. But Bessler, or Orffyreus as he also liked to call himself , allowed everyone present to inspect the machine’s components, and even to move it to different parts of the room, where it could be stopped and restarted with a light push. Bessler obtained his certificate, as well as testimonials (“We have demonstrated that in reality Bessler’s wheel is far removed from any deception”) from Christian Wolff, English philosopher and maths professor. Another defender of Bessler was the Viennese architect, J. E. Fischer von Erlach, who subsequently helped pioneer the development of steam engines. How they could have endorsed Bessler is an even greater mystery than the secret of his machine.
The thinking was that a machine could be built that would somehow be able to ‘trick’ gravity into reacting as if the mass of a weight in motion was less than at when it was at rest.
Whether or not his detractors actually saw the invention is unknown, but the campaign to discredit Bessler intensified. Again, he destroyed his wheel, and found patronage from Karl, the Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel. In return for seeing the secret inside the wheel, Karl provided Bessler with income and lodging. The inventor was now set for his grandest and most famous demonstration.
And this is a good point to mention Steorn. As reported in Fortean Times, 216:12, this Dublin-based company announced in 2006 that it had found a method of producing “free, clean, and constant energy”. Aware of the perils awaiting those whose plans and prototypes litter the history of perpetual motion, they decided to take a public approach, throwing down the challenge to the world’s scientists and applying for a jury to determine the validity of their claims. At the 8 September deadline, “more than 3,000 scientists” had applied.
So, by the time you read this, twelve very smart people will be locked in a room in Dublin with the invention, named Orbo, and at least one of them may well be thinking: “Yes, my understanding of the fundamentals of reality is all wrong. Scientifically, we are back at year zero”. Well, that, presumably is what the founders of Steorn will be hoping for. If not, their claims of “a significant challenge to our current understanding of the Universe” and the possibility of “a world with an infinite supply of clean energy for all” are going to need more ingenious explaining than the most tortuous locked-room mystery ever devised.
On 10 November 1717, Bessler found himself in a similar situation. With his third wheel ready, the test was to take place at Castle Weissenstein in front of a number of people of apparently unquestionable integrity and learning. After all the parts were inspected and the surrounding rooms searched for concealed mechanisms and people, the wheel was put together and set in motion. On 12 November, the room containing it was locked and sealed with wax. Two military sentries stood outside the door.
On 4 January – 54 days later – the room was opened and the wheel was found to be still turning at a steady 26 rpm. There were calls for an even longer trial, but Karl wouldn’t have it, convinced that the trial was sufficient to demonstrate the wheel’s usefulness. For four more years the wheel was examined and tested. The Emperor of Austria’s architect, Johann Fischer von Erlach, wrote: “I am quite persuaded that there exists no reason why this machine should not have the name Perpetual Motion given to it; and I have good reason to believe that it is one.”
Everything was going perfectly for Bessler.
So, something was bound to go wrong.
On 4 January – 54 days later – the room was opened and Bessler's wheel was found to be still turning at a steady 26 rpm.
Diagrams of the wheel built by Bessler in Merseburg, from an engraving published in 1715.
Side and front view.
The drive mechanism is supposedly hidden inside the wheel.
1. Arthur WJG Ord-Hume, Perpetual Motion, the History of an Obsession (George Allen ' Unwin Ltd, 1977) shows lots of gravity-wheels and other perpetual motion machines. The only one accepted by Ord-Hme as being a true perpetual motion device is James Cox’s barometric clock of the 1770s.
3. Deriving from ‘Orffyre’, a 13-shift cipher of the name Bessler. A fuller and extensively-referenced account of the deception can be found in Alejandro Jenkins, 'The mechanical career of Councillor Orffyreus, confidence, man'.
4. Steorn’s device is based not on gravity, but on magnetism. The latest news about the company can be found here.
From around the end of July 2006, discussions flared up at an online discussion forum where engineers, inventors, tinkerers, and hucksters gather to… well, not quite share ideas about their inventions, more to drop significant hints to one other. A lot of them seem to be holding out for wealth or immortality. One Jim Kelly claimed to have reproduced Bessler’s technique sometime in the 1960s but had lost his wheel, and the less sketchy parts of the design – ie., the really clever bit – had fallen down a memory hole. As others joined in to put their cards on the table, including at least one other Bessler-cracker, Kelly made ever more grandiose pronouncements, provoking numerous online spats.
When Ken Toliver, another Bessler claimant, proclaimed: “As the discoverer of the mechanism Bessler used, I will be remembered longer than he is”, you had to admire the man’s confidence. Kelly retorted with: “Gentlemen: I am coming down the home stretch!!!! Get the Roses ready. My alternate fuel engine is ready!!!” By now I was cancelling my electricity supply and drawing up plans for a Kelly machine-powered off-the-grid indoor sauna and faux-volcanic heated outdoor swimming pool. It struck me how no one seemed to want to admit to having read anything about the history of weight and gravity-powered perpetual motion devices. If they were familiar with the literature, they’d know that every text agrees that building a PM machine simply can’t be done. Every attempt has been shown to be a failure. But perhaps I am missing the point.
Despite claims of fraud that went on for years, Bessler never divulged what he had actually done, but it probably relied on a man in a room adjacent to the wheel turning it by hand, the theory of engineer Johann Borlach. His reputation became so damaged he never could get the asking price he wanted for his wheel. Eventually, he broke up the parts, documents, and models so they could not be stolen, and wrote a book that dangles the solution in front of the reader in the form of hints and codes – an alchemical tract for engineers. He died in 1745, aged 65, while working on a windmill design.
It would be a poor thing if the fate of Bessler’s wheel befell Steorn’s device, the latest incarnation of which appears to be a phone-charger, the Orbo-Cube. The story of Bessler’s invention shows how even the most positive conclusions by the most qualified people are only a part of the long and difficult process of being accepted as a revolutionary inventor – providing how what's been invented isn't somehow fraudulent.
By now I was cancelling my electricity supply and drawing up plans for a Kelly machine-powered off-the-grid indoor sauna and faux-volcanic heated outdoor swimming pool.
Title page of Bessler's pamphlet describing his invention.
Johann Borlach's illustration of the
possible secret behind Bessler's wheel.