The Impossible History of Perpetual Motion

On November 12th, 1717, clockmaker and mechanic Johann Bessler placed a 12-foot diameter, strange-looking wheel into a room. With a tender push, he started the contraption rotating, then confidently turned and strolled outside. Guards promptly secured and locked the door behind him. Nobody would be allowed to enter the room for two weeks, lest the machine be tampered with. Perpetual motion machines are finicky gadgets, you see.

Lo and behold, two weeks later the door was opened and the wheel was found to still be turning. The room was sealed yet again, this time not to be opened for 39 days. Surely this time physics would apply its grating touch, halting the wheel. No machine can continue operating forever after all, at least not without some external force pumping in energy to surmount the reins of friction.

Again, when the door was opened on January 4th, 1718, the wheel was still spinning. People traveled from near and far to gawk at it, eyes wide with wonder. Bessler was happy to explain that the machine functioned using a series of weights to keep it perpetually unbalanced, and thus moving. But was his machine physics defying, or a clever ruse?

The Impossible History of Perpetual Motion

Long before Bessler engineered his contraption, curious inventors fashioned together wheels and apparatuses in the hopes that they would move everlasting. The key, most surmised, was to make one side constantly heavier than the other, causing motion in the direction of the weightier side. Simple, right? Not exactly. None of the tinkerers' toys ever succeeded.

Their repeated attempts and failures drew the mockery of the renowned Leonardo da Vinci.

"Oh, ye seekers after perpetual motion, how many vain chimeras have you pursued? Go and take your place with the alchemists," he patronized.

However, it seems that da Vinci may have been a dirty, rotten hypocrite (though we thank him for his learned, artistic contributions to mankind). His own notebooks featured drawings of "recirculation mills" that would supposedly move water and spin a wheel forever. Did he, too, lust after the mystical power of perpetual motion?

Whether he did or didn't, he would have failed, for water isn't the answer, either. Nowhere better is this exemplified than the "self-flowing flask."

The Impossible History of Perpetual Motion

The basic idea is this: The larger, and thus heavier amount of water in the bowl will push the water contained within the narrow neck up and out of the tiny orifice and back into the bowl, refilling for all eternity. At first thought, it makes sense. But that sense is thrown out the window in real life. The water levels simply equal out at the same height in both the bowl and the neck, and there they boringly stay.

Scientists have accepted that neither wheels nor water will unlock perpetual motion, but that doesn't mean they've given up the hunt. Just last year, Nobel Prize Winner Frank Wilczek proposed the idea of "time crystals," tiny physical structures that could move in a repeating pattern indefinitely. Wilczek admits that the notion is crazy and likely impossible. Many physicistsagree. Time, and rigorous scientific scrutiny, will tell.

In all the time that's passed since Johann Bessler supposedly demonstrated perpetual motion, historians and scientists have been able to look back critically on his work, a skeptical process that's yielded tough questions. For example, why couldn't Bessler have allowed others to watch the contraption through a small hole? That way, impartial observers could ensure that the wheel continued to spin the entire time.

Bessler's livelihood as a clockmaker also raises queries. Perhaps he simply devised a large device based on the inner workings of a clock, powered by a long, winding spring?

We'll never know, because after one curious engineer examined the perpetual motion contraption without Bessler's consent, an outraged and scandalized Bessler had it destroyed.

It was a rash, hasty, and unwarranted action. As it turned out, the engineer only examined the exterior of the machine. He found nothing suspicious.

This article has been republished with permission from RealClearScience.

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