History and Quest For Perpetual Motion 1775 to 1874

About the many attempts through history in the question for perpetual motion from 1775 to 1874, information on inventors, inventions and more.


1775 The French Academy of Sciences put down its collective foot and passed a resolution not to publish future communications about perpetual motion. The academy stated, "This sort of research . . . has ruined more than one family, and in many cases mechanics who might have rendered great services have consumed their fortune, their time, and their genius on it."

1776 James Watt and Matthew Boulton installed the first true steam engine at a forge owned by John Wilkinson. It was vastly more efficient than Newcomen's crude machine of 60 years earlier. Boulton told James Boswell, who had come to inspect the technological wonder, "I sell here, Sir, what all the world desires to have: Power!" It was not, however, perpetual motion.

c. 1810 Sir William Congreve, a member of Parliament, invented a perpetual-motion machine powered by a continuous chain of sponges. The sponges on one side of the chain soaked up water, while those on the other side were squeezed dry. The imbalance in weight was to keep the chain moving. When built, the device failed to move.

Mid-1800s Spurred by the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, a large number of scientists and engineers contributed to developing a scientific theory of energy and power. Out of this came the First Law of Thermodynamics, sometimes paraphrased as "You can't get something for nothing." It explained the failure of all of the unbalanced-wheel and Fludd's-mill attempts at perpetual motion. Also formulated was the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which says that you can't even break even. This established that improvements in the efficiency of heat engines would never lead to true perpetual motion.

1856 A Connecticut machinist, E.P. Willis, built an elegant and complicated system of wheels and gears that flagrantly violated the First Law of Thermodynamics. After attracting much attention in New Haven, he moved it to New York and for several years charged admission to see it. It was ultimately revealed as a fraud, running on a cleverly concealed system of compressed air.

1874 John Worrell Keely built an amazing engine that ran on a charge of water that it never consumed. It could rip steel cables apart, bend iron bars, and fire bullets through foot-thick planks. Renting a suite in the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York, Keely attracted scores of hungry investors, who equated his genius with that of Carnegie, Bell, and Edison. Soon he had formed the Keely Motor Company, capitalized at $1 million. His showmanship became ever more polished. He talked of "vibratory energy," "etheric vapor," or the "interatomic ether" as he demonstrated a cannon that would propel a ball 500 yd. at a muzzle velocity of 500 ft. per second. He built a laboratory in Philadelphia where he continued to refine his engine to where it could turn at 800 revolutions per minute and produce 40 hp on less than a thimbleful of water, and keep doing it for 15 days with the same water. He even made promises that he could run a 30-car railroad from Philadelphia to New York at 60 mph on a quart of water and send a steamship roaring across the Atlantic to Liverpool on less than a pint. But the Keely Motor Company never built a single machine for commercial distribution, nor did it generate a nickel of profit. When Keely died in 1898, a pair of University of Pennsylvania professors, an editor of The Scientific American, and a well-known electrical engineer tore up the floorboards of his workshop to find a fraudulently concealed 3-ton tank of compressed air connected by a series of brass tubes to Keely's "magic" machine.

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