Over the years, a lot of people have claimed to have invented a perpetual motion machine. John Keely was one of them. Obviously, he hadn't invented any such thing, but here's how he managed to string people along for over 25 years.
Meet John Keely
John Keely didn't die a rich man, but he did die a comfortable one. This was impressive, as he did absolutely nothing to earn his comfortable living. Perhaps that's too critical. He was a brilliant liar and con artist, and that takes both skill and some degree of work. Keely even went through a kind of apprenticeship to develop his skills. Orphaned at a young age and raised by his grandparents, he slowly made his way up in the world. He started out as a carnival barker, calling people into shows and demonstrations before working his way into the theatrical world. He got a job in a theatrical orchestra, which promptly failed. Seeing that his time as an entertainer was nearly up, he decided to shift gears and get a job as a mechanic.
It didn't take long for his dramatic side to reassert itself. When it did, he started a hugely successful con, which lasted 26 years. He managed it because, despite the fact that the mechanics of the con were so simple that a curious child could probably have figured them out, he perfected the two different spiels that keep people believing in made-up stories.
The Scientific Breakthrough
Keely started his con in 1872 simply by incorporating the Keely Motor Company. He had invented a motor that could run, essentially, forever, and if he just got a little money to make the technology practical, he would make his stockholders rich. When asked to give a demonstration of the engine, he was happy to do so. His engine, using only a little water as fuel, bent iron bars and kept running for weeks at a time. Looking back, it's easy to see Keely's musical side coming out. He told his investors that he used a "vibration that liberates from the air and the water an inter-atomic ether." He had discovered this force, he claimed, during his playing music and observing the vibrations of tuning forks. Investors gave him the equivalent of millions of dollars.
Fourteen years later, they were beginning to get a bit impatient with the lack of progress. Keely's invention, while performing admirably every time they came to town, for some reason had not been perfected for industrial use.
Keely was not the first "inventor" to tour a perpetual motion machine. Quite a few pseudo-inventors went from town to town with wonder machines, trying to sell it to businesses or the local government. They generally were shown the door when the people they were selling to noticed a person inside the apparatus turning handles, or in the room next door working a crank. Keely managed to spin out enough authoritative scientific jargon that people believed him, but after 14 years the jig was up.
The Ancient Spiritual Force
So Keely started playing another jig. This time he found the ultimate cliched target for con artists – the rich widow. Clara Jessup Bloomfield Moore had a lot of money and a lot of interests; like many people in the 1800s, spiritualism was one of those interests. This was a time when the population was well-versed in seances and communiques from ancient civilizations. Along came Keeley with his perpetual motion machine, but this time he didn't talk about atoms and ether.
He talked about "mish-mak" and the "sidereal force." These were forces that, Keely claimed, had first been discovered by ancient Atlanteans. They were mysterious beyond words. And they came out when Keely did things like play the harmonica to his machine.
Funnily enough, Keely played relatively fair with Moore. He claimed, almost straight away, that the sidereal force was from the "astral plane" and "would never be permitted to serve the purposes of commerce or traffic." Humanity was, he claimed, "hundreds of thousands of years" away from being ready for such a force. Moore would have to support Keely for the mere advancement of humanity towards a more noble plane of existence. This, she seemed happy to do. Moore did send in another couple of scientists, both of which told her Keely was conning her, but this only made her scale back her investment in Keely to the 1880s equivalent of $7000 a month.
Keely died while still being sponsored by Moore. His grand invention turned out to have been powered, the entire time, by compressed air. But since he perfected the two ways of pulling the wool over people's eyes – science jargon and spiritual jargon – no one in his lifetime ever had to know that.