The Perpetual Search for Perpetual Motion
Why did thousands of inventors think their machines could defy the laws of nature?
As America entered the First World War, in 1917, an Armenian named Garabed Giragossian petitioned Congress to investigate his miraculous and eponymous Garabed, an invention that would provide unlimited energy, “a natural force that we can utilize and have energy as we like, without toil or expense.” First he secured the endorsements of the director of music in the Boston Public Schools, the president of the board of trustees of the Boston Public Library, and the president of a shipbuilding concern; when he began his lobbying campaign on Capitol Hill, reports about his machine appeared in The Literary Digest and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. As Scientific American later commented, “For more than a year, even the conservative press was betrayed into believing: There may be something in it.’ ”
Rep. Robert Grosser (Democrat, Ohio) assured his colleagues that the machine would reveal itself to be the “supreme discovery of the ages, one which would be a blessing to every human being.” It would “save the Government not only billions of dollars but will make it absolutely certain that this Government can terminate the war with little effort and in a very short time.” The House voted 234 to 14 to investigate the Garabed. In the Senate, Ollie James (Democrat, Kentucky) announced, “Mr. Giragossian claims that he has discovered some energy producer that will not need the use of fuel of any sort, that will transport ships and aeroplanes and will virtually end the war. I do not know whether there is any merit in it or not, but the other branch of Congress thinks there is. Many Senators here think so.”
The congressional investigation revealed that Giragossian had made the most elementary of errors: he had confused power and force. The Garabed was a simple flywheel set spinning manually with pulleys and kept in motion with an electric motor. Giragossian hoped to extract his “free energy” from the difference between the ten horsepower required to stop the wheel and the twentieth of one horsepower needed to keep it going; he failed to realize that when the wheel was stopped quickly, it spent all of the energy it had gradually stored up. The inventor had deceived Congress and a large number of citizens into believing that something could be gotten for nothing. And he had deceived himself too. As the Scientific American reported, he seemed to be the “honest victim of self-delusion, believing that he had hit upon an epoch-making discovery, eager to secure its employment in the best interests of mankind.”
No one has ever built a perpetual-motion machine, but since antiquity the search for perpetual motion has attracted minds great and small. Americans are no exception. A perpetual-motion machine represents a kind of localized Utopia, a complete, self-sufficient, closed system that generates more energy than it consumes. Typically it uses a force of nature—gravity or electromagnetism—in a cycle intended to be self-sustaining and even to generate “extra” power for various applications.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, thousands of American inventors tried to design perpetual-motion machines. At the same time, a handful of nineteenth-century scientists were formulating their great contribution to theoretical physics—thermodynamics. The first and second laws of thermodynamics embody at once our most abstract interpretations of the physical universe and our most common platitudes. The first law describes the conservation of energy: Energy cannot be created or destroyed; it can only be transferred or converted into heat. The second law dictates that when heat is transferred—whenever work is done—some of the energy used is irrecoverable, typically dispersed as waste heat. In short, you can’t get something for nothing. These principles were first spelled out as “laws” around 1850 and were actually based on the empirical but unprovable “axiom of nature” that perpetual motion is impossible. Although the impossibility of perpetual motion had been widely accepted by scientists for centuries, the two laws of thermodynamics received a theoretical underpinning only in the second half of the nineteenth century, when classical statistical thermodynamics was developed.
Jacob T. Wainwright, a civil engineer, expressed a frustration with these laws of thermodynamics that many undoubtedly shared. He suggested that to deny the possibility of perpetual motion was un-American. He denounced the tyranny of a foreign “postulation” that ruled out prima facie any perpetual-motion machine. In a paper for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he claimed that thermodynamics was “based upon nothing more substantial than faith and a bald supposition.” He would put his faith in practical mechanics.
As equal citizens, Americans have always felt entitled to draw their own conclusions. But as Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out, in a land where each citizen demands to judge for himself, Americans often find themselves caught up in the sweep of fashion. “Equality stimulates each man to want to judge everything for himself,” he wrote, yet for a democratic people, the “seasonableness of an idea is much more useful … than its strict accuracy.”
So it went with perpetual motion. The facts were clear that such a machine was absurd, but throughout a period of many years, various crazes for the building of perpetual-motion machines swept America. Tocqueville advanced neither explanation nor solution for his paradox. But clues may be found in the intertwining of ideology and technology in nineteenth-century America, and in the social history of the perpetual-motion machine.
The contemplation of the seemingly ceaseless cycles of nature has always inspired men to imitate such activity. In the preindustrial period, perpetual-motion machines were designed with specific applications in mind or as abstract philosophical marvels. Medieval designs for ever-turning miller’s wheels were supposed to continually hoist the water they used for power and run a grindstone on the side. The marquis of Worcester, in 1685, and the German Johann Orffyreus in 1715, were two designers of such machines.
The discovery of stunning new “forces” like steam and electrical power during and after the Industrial Revolution could only encourage dreamers of perpetual motion. Electricity, an observer for Scientific American noted in 1891, “seems to be deceiving many men, and leading them into the belief that by means of this mysterious force more power can be received than what is given.…” What struck Henry Adams as “mysterious” about radium and “frozen air” led other, more practical and optimistic men to believe that such substances might conceal a literally limitless source of power.
B. F. Isherwood, the chief engineer for the Naval Department in the 1880s, was taken in by the revolutionary and unworkable Zeromotor, designed by John Gamgee, a British professor living in Washington. The Zeromotor was to use ammonia, which by vaporizing at room temperature would drive a piston. The gas would then condense and the cycle repeat itself, producing net excess power without the consumption of fuel. However, Gamgee failed to realize that the cooling of the gas associated with its expansion would render its condensation impossible. In 1882, after reading Gamgee’s detailed explanation of the Zeromotor, Isherwood advised that, “in view of the immense importance of the subject to the Navy and to mankind at large, 1 strongly recommend it to the serious attention of the Department. [It] is not… a machine for the application of power, but for the immensely more important purpose of generating power itself, so that, strictly speaking, it includes as a basis all other machines.…”
Similarly, in 1899, an experimenter with liquefied air claimed he could run a full cycle of cooling and then heating water and finish with net gain in power. Ray Stannard Baker, the editor of McClure’s Magazine, took the scientist at his word and commented, “It is not difficult to remember what people said when Morse sent words by telegraph from Washington to Baltimore, and when Bell spoke miles over a copper wire.” The pace of invention put the skeptics on the defensive. Why was the galvanic motor a success, but the Zeromotor “something for nothing”? Most people understood neither. Each year brought new marvels previously thought impossible; why not perpetual motion?
And just as their machines differed, neither were all the would-be inventors of perpetual-motion machines alike. Though each of them failed, even failure may be purposeful, imaginative, and honest. Many of the self-proclaimed inventors were genuine, and were ignorant of theoretical science; others were charlatans and quacks. John W. Keely, for example, the best known of all the perpetual-motion humbugs, raised five million dollars and a ruckus of publicity to finance his researches into the “etheric force” in the 1870s. The real hidden force was compressed air. Other inventors, originally honest and hopeful, were led by their growing frustration—and the profit motive—to hide a motor in their machine and mount an exhibit for the public. With a little subterfuge the machine would work exactly as intended. But most of the inventors, Utopians like Giragossian, hoped to single-handedly transform the whole of society.
As far back as 1832, Congress had directed that Dr. Horatio Gates Spafford be issued letters patent for his perpetual-motion machine, which would “prove to be an improvement beyond any former invention in mechanical science.” When a year later the patent expired (and so incidentally did Spafford, of cholera), the Journal of the Franklin Institute exposed the “fallacy of the thing proposed.” It was supposed to generate the movement of floats by the rise of a lighter liquid through a heavier one. A portion of this movement (not more than 2 or 3 percent, so as to leave the rest free for use) was then to condense the lighter liquid, so that it might return to the bottom to resume its upward course. This would continue forever. Elijah Willey, one of Spafford’s backers, had maintained that the invention “embraced a new principle in mechanical power, the application of which was more important to the interests and honor of the country, than any other discovery since we have been a nation.…”
Most inventors hoped to single-handedly transform the whole of society.
The persistent belief in perpetual motion can be blamed not only on fashion, optimism, and the dazzle of legitimate nineteenth-century discovery, but also on the rhetoric of the era’s popular apologists. Writers and orators constantly proclaimed a new age of man—the technological age. In the side-by-side march of democracy and industrialization, the cult of the inventor was born. Orators paid tribute to the technology pioneers, those practical, republican, profoundly American men. Great inventors were among the most praiseworthy contributors to civilization. They brought vast powers into man’s service.
One Edward W. Byrn wrote a prizewinning essay in 1896 that correlated invention and civilization. Using triumphant metaphors of domination and violation, Byrn explained that man had “robbed Mother Earth” to make “dead matter… to speak.” He promised, “The past is merely preliminary … human ingenuity knows no limit.” Thomas Ewbank, Utopian prophet and Commissioner of Patents, defined man as “a manipulator of matter.” Man’s destiny, he announced, was to animate the inert stuff of the world, bring motion and activity to dead matter. And the popular orator and politician Edward Everett compared the inventor to a magician: “He kindles the fires of his steam engine, and the rivers, the lakes, the ocean, are covered with flying vessels.… He stamps his foot, and 100,000 men start into being … furnished with every implement for the service and comfort of man.”
The continual claims that perpetual motion had been discovered—and the widespread acceptance of such claims—confirm that these speeches echoed the sentiments of the mass of Americans. Man’s infinite reach, his easy violation of nature’s laws, and his magician’s powers were evident, and they fueled the hopes of the perpetual-motion inventor.
In a letter to the editor of the Scientific American in 1873, a Mr. Forfex estimated that “no less than 100,000 individuals in the United States alone are wasting time and substance in this seductive and barren pursuit.” If so, then Edward Everett’s “100,000 men” had been set in action not by an inventor-magician but by oratory such as that of Everett himself. With sad and heavy sarcasm, a correspondent to the Scientific American during the heat of the Keely motor deception of 1877 confessed that Keely’s fraudulent motor was “another crown to the glory of the 19th century.”
Not until 1918 did the Patent Office exclude all perpetual-motion schemes.
When Congress granted Spafford his patent, the Journal of the Franklin Institute quoted from the writings of the eighteenth-century French philosopher Jean Desaguliers: “Our legislators may make laws to govern us, repeal some, and enact others, and we must obey them; but they cannot alter the laws of nature, nor add, or take away, one iota from the gravity of bodies.” However, the Patent Office, led by responsible scientific men, only very slowly began to incorporate the laws of nature into the laws of man. The Patent Office reform of 1836 required that all inventions be new and useful. Before that time some eleven patents had been granted for perpetual-motion machines. Even after, the flood of such applications increased. Gradually the Patent Office began to discourage perpetual-motion schemes. Beginning in 1891 the Office required the submission of a model with any perpetual-motion application. Patent lawyers reported that applicants remained “numerous.” One popular 1906 pamphlet, “How to File a Patent,” spent half its pages picturing perpetual-motion machines and explaining why they couldn’t possibly ever work. But only in 1918, after the Garabed craze, did the Office finally exclude all perpetual-motion schemes from any sort of consideration. In 1930 all such applications remaining on file were burned.
The heyday of the perpetual-motion machine is over, but the inventors are still trying. Just last year a Texan named Joseph Newman took the Patent Office to court for summarily rejecting his motor, which, according to one affidavit, operates at 111 percent efficiency. Newman objected to the cursory treatment given his invention. The Patent Office cited the laws of thermodynamics and “all of recorded science.” Newman was asked to bring his machine to the Bureau of Standards for testing; at press time he had still failed to comply.
The United States has finally closed the door on an invention that once seemed entirely plausible to a large number of Americans. For scientific theory these people substituted hope and determination. Visionaries like Spafford or Giragossian had hoped in one quick step to bring the technological age to its ultimate fruition. And they would accomplish this vast revolution in the exalted American way, employing one individual’s facility for mechanical invention. Countless numbers of their fellow Americans believed in them.
We assume we are different. We consider ourselves more skeptical, more knowledgeable about basic principles, and we leave technical conjecture to the scientific authorities. But perhaps our popular delusions have just changed. Who knows what fad or fashion in cleverly packaged pseudoscience lies waiting around the corner—or just lies.
Ken Alder is a graduate student in the history of science at Harvard