John Phin.

The seven follies of science; a popular account of the most famous scientific impossibilities and the attempts which have been made to solve them. To which is added a small budget of interesting paradoxes, illusions, and marvels online

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Online LibraryJohn PhinThe seven follies of science; a popular account of the most famous scientific impossibilities and the attempts which have been made to solve them. To which is added a small budget of interesting paradoxes, illusions, and marvels → online text (page 5 of 12)
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a foundation. Most of our perpetual motions were clearly
the result of too little learning ; surely this one was the
product of too much."

A more simple device was suggested recently by a cor-
respondent of "Power." He describes it thus :

The J-shaped tube A, Fig. 14, is open at both ends,
but tapers at the lower end, as shown. A well-greased
cotton rope C passes over the wheel B and through the



small opening of the tube with practically little or no fric-
tion, and also without leakage. The tube is then filled with
water. The rope above the line WX balances over the
pulley, and so does that below the line YZ . The rope in

Fig. 14.

the tube between these lines is lifted by the water, while
the rope on the other side of the pulley between these lines
is pulled downward by gravity.

The inventor offers the above suggestion rather as a
kind of puzzle than as a sober attempt to solve the famous
problem, and he concludes by asking why it will not work ?

In addition to the usual resistance or friction offered by
the air to all motion, there are four drawbacks :

1. The friction in its bearings of the axle of the wheel B.

2. The power required to bend and unbend the rope.

3. The friction of the rope in passing through the water
from z to x and its tendency to raise a portion of the water
above the level of the water at x.


4. The friction at the point y, this last being the most
serious of all. An " opening of the tube with practically
little or no friction, and also without leakage " is a mechan-
ical impossibility. In order to have the joint water-tight,
the tube must hug the rope very tightly and this would
make friction enough to prevent any motion. And the
longer the column of water xz, the greater will be the ten-
dency to leak, and consequently the tighter must be the
joint and the greater the friction thereby created.

A favorite idea with perpetual-motion seekers is the
utilization of the force of magnetism. Some time prior to
the year 1579, Joannes Taisnierus wrote a book which is
now in the British Museum and in which considerable
space is devoted to " Continual Motions " and to the
solving of this problem by magnetism. Bishop Wil-
kins in his " Mathematical Magick " describes one of the
many devices which have been invented with this end
in view. He says : " But amongst all these kinds of inven-
tion, that is most likely, wherein a loadstone is so disposed
that it shall draw unto it on a reclined plane a bullet of
steel, which steel as it ascends near to the loadstone, may
be contrived to fall down through some hole in the plane,
and so to return unto the place from whence at first it
began to move ; and, being there, the loadstone will again
attract it upwards till coming to this hole, it will fall down
again ; and so the motion shall be perpetual, as may be
more easily conceivable by this figure (Fig. 15) :

" Suppose the loadstone to be represented at AB, which,
though it have not strength enough to attract the bullet
C directly from the ground, yet may do it by the help of
the plane EF. Now, when the bullet is come to the top
of this plane, its own gravity (which is supposed to exceed



the strength of the loadstone) will make it fall into that
hole at E; and the force it receives in this fall will carry it
with such a violence unto the other end of this arch, that
it will open the passage which is there made for it, and by
its return will again shut it : so that the bullet (as at the

Fig- 15-

first) is in the same place whence it was attracted, and,
consequently must move perpetually."

Notwithstanding the positiveness of the "must " at the
close of his description, it is very obvious to any practical
mechanic that the machine will not move at all, far less
move perpetually, and the bishop himself, after carefully
and conscientiously discussing the objections, comes to the
same conclusion. He ends by saying : " So that none of
all these magnetical experiments, which have been as yet
discovered, are sufficient for the effecting of a perpetual
motion, though these kind of qualities seem most conduci-
ble unto it, and perhaps hereafter it may be contrived from

It has occurred to several would-be inventors of perpet-
ual motion that if some substance could be found which
would prevent the passage of the magnetic force, then by
interposing a plate of this material at the proper moment,


between the magnet and the piece of iron to be attracted,
a perpetual motion might be obtained. Several inventors
have claimed that they had discovered such a non-conduct-
ing substance, but it is needless to say that their claims
had no foundation in fact, and if they had discovered anything
of the kind, it would have required just as much force to
interpose it as would have been gained by the interposi-
tion. It has been fully proved that in every case where a
machine was made to work apparently by the interposition
of such a material, a fraud was perpetrated and the machine
was really made to move by means of some concealed
springs or weights.

A correspondent of the " Mechanic's Magazine " (Vol. xii,
London, 1829), gives the following curious design for a
" Self -moving Railway Carriage." He describes it as a
machine which, were it possible to make its parts hold to-
gether unimpaired by rotation or the ravages of time, and
to give it a path encircling the earth, would assuredly con-
tinue to roll along in one undeviating course until time
shall be no more.

A series of inclined planes are to be erected in such a
manner that a cone will ascend one (its sides forming an
acute angle), and being raised to the summit, descend on
the next (having parallel sides), at the foot of which it
must rise on a third and fall on a fourth, and so continue
to do alternately throughout.

The diagram, Fig. 16, is the section of a carriage A,
with broad conical wheels a, a y resting on the inclined plane
b. The entrance to the carriage is from above, and there are
ample accommodations for goods and passengers. " The
most singular property of this contrivance is, that its speed
increases the more it is laden ; and when checked on any

6 4


part of the road, it will, when the cause of stoppage is re-
moved, proceed on its journey by mere power of gravity.
Its path may be a circular road formed of the inclined
planes. But to avoid a circuitous route, a double road
ought to be made. The carriage not having a retrograde
motion on the inclined planes, a road to set out upon, and
another to return by, are indispensable."

Fig. 16.

How any one could ever imagine that such a contrivance
would ever continue in motion for even a short time,
except, perhaps, on the famous decensus averni, must be a
puzzle to every sane mechanic. I therefore give it as
a climax to the absurdities which have been proposed in
sober earnest. As a fitting close, however, to this chapter
of human folly, I give the following joke from the "Penny
Magazine," published by the Society for the Diffusion of
Useful Knowledge.

" * Father, I have invented a perpetual motion ! ' said a
little fellow of eight years old. ' It is thus : I would make
a great wheel, and fix it up like a water-wheel; at the top
I would hang a great weight, and at the bottom I would
hang a number of little weights; then the great weight


would turn the wheel half round and sink to the bottom,
because it is so heavy: and when the little weights reach
the top they would sink down, because they are so many;
and thus the wheel would turn round for ever.'

The child's fallacy is a type of all the blunders which
are made on this subject. Follow a projector in his
description, and if it be not perfectly unintelligible, which
it often is, it always proves that he expects to find certain
of his movements alternately strong and weak not
according to the laws of nature but according to the
wants of his mechanism.


Fallacies are distinguished from absurdities on the one
hand and from frauds on the other, by the fact that with-
out any intentionally fraudulent contrivances on the part
of the inventor, they seem to produce results which have
a tendency to afford to certain enthusiasts a basis of hope
in the direction of perpetual motion, although usually not
under that name, for that is always explicitly disclaimed by
the promoters.

The most notable instance of this class in recent times
was the application of liquid air as a source of power, the
claim having been actually made by some of the advocates
of this fallacy that a steamship starting from New York
with 1000 gallons of liquid air, could not only cross the
Atlantic at full speed but could reach the other side with
more than 1000 gallons of liquid air on board the power
required to drive the vessel and to liquefy the surplus air
being all obtained during the passage by utilizing the
original quantity of liquid air that had been furnished in
the first place.





That this was equivalent to perpetual motion, pure and
simple, was obvious even to those who were least familiar
with such subjects, though the idea of calling it perpetual
motion was sternly repudiated by all concerned the term
"perpetual motion" having become thoroughly offensive
to the ears of common-sense people, and consequently
tending to cast doubt over any enterprise to which it
might be applied.

That liquid air is a real and wonderful discovery, and
that for a certain small range of purposes it will prove
highly useful, cannot be doubted by those who have seen
and handled it and are familiar with its properties, but that
it will ever be successfully used as an economical source
of mechanical power is, to say the least, very improbable.
That a small quantity of the liquid is capable of doing an
enormous amount of work, and that under some conditions
there is apparently more power developed than was origin-
ally required to liquefy the air, is undoubtedly true, but
when a careful quantitative examination is made of the
outgo and the income of energy, it will be found in this,
as in every similar case, that instead of a gain there is a
very decided and serious loss. The correct explanation of
the fallacy was published in the " Scientific American," by
the late Dr. Henry Morton, president of the Stevens
Institute, and the same explanation and exposure were
made by the writer, nearly fifty years ago, in the case of
a very similar enterprise. The form of the fallacy in both
cases is so similar and so interesting that I shall make no
apology for giving the details.

About the year 1853 or 1854, two ingenious mechanics
of Rochester, N. Y., conceived the idea that by using some
liquid more volatile than water, a great saving might be


effected in the cost of running an engine. At that time
gasolene and benzine were unknown in commerce, and the
same was true in regard to bisulphide of carbon, but as
the process of manufacturing the latter was simple and the
sources of supply were cheap and apparently unlimited, they
adopted that liquid. The name of one of these inventors
was Hughes and that of the other was Hill, and it would
seem that each had made the invention independently of
the other. They had a fierce conflict over the patent, but
this does not concern us except to this extent, that the
records of the case may therefore be found in the archives
of the Patent Office at Washington, D.C. Hughes was
backed by the wealth of a well-known lawyer of Rochester,
whose son subsequently occupied a high office in the state
of New York, and he constructed a beautiful little steam-
engine and boiler, made of the very finest materials and
with such skill and accuracy that it gave out a very consid-
erable amount of power in proportion to its size. The
source of heat was a series of lamps, fed, I think, with
lard oil (this was before the days of kerosene), and the ex-
hibition test consisted in first filling the boiler with water,
and noting the time that it took to get up a certain steam
pressure as shown by the gage. After this test, bisulphide
of carbon was added to the water, and the time and pres-
sure were noted. The difference was of course remark-
able, and altogether in favor of the new liquid. The
exhaust was carried into a vessel of cold water and as bi-
sulphide of carbon is very easily condensed and very heavy,
almost the entire quantity used was recovered and used
over and over again.

But to the uninstructed onlooker, the most remarkable
part of the exhibition was when the steam pressure was so


far lowered that the engine revolved very slowly, and then,
on a little bisulphide being injected into the boiler, the
pressure would at once rise, and the engine would work
with great rapidity. This seemed almost like magic.

The same experiment was tried on an engine of twelve
horse-power, and with a like result. When the steam
pressure had fallen so far that the engine began to move
quite slowly, a quantity of the bisulphide would be injected
into the boiler and the pressure would at once rise, the
engine would move with renewed vigor, and the fly-wheel
would revolve with startling velocity. All this was seen
over and over again by myself and others. At that time
the writer, then quite a young man, had just recovered
from a very severe illness and was making a living by
teaching mechanical drawing and making drawings for in-
ventors and others, and in the course of business he was
brought into contact with some parties who thought of in-
vesting in the new and apparently wonderful invention.
They employed him to examine it and give an opinion as
to its value. After careful consideration and as thorough
a calculation as the data then at command would allow, he
showed his clients that the tests which had been exhibited
to them proved nothing, and that if a clear proof of the
value of the invention was to be given, it must be after a
run of many hours and not of a few minutes, and against
a properly adjusted load, the amount of which had been
carefully ascertained. This test was never made, or if
made the results were not communicated to the prospec-
tive purchasers ; the negotiations fell through, and the in-
vention which was to have revolutionized our mechanical
industries fell into " innocuous desuetude."

That the inventors were honest I have no doubt. They


were themselves deceived when they saw the engine start
off with tremendous velocity as soon as a little bisulphide
of carbon was injected into the boiler, and they failed to
see that this spurt, if I may use the expression, was simply
due to a draft upon capital previously stored up. The
capacity of bisulphide of carbon for heat is quite low, when
compared with that of water ; its vaporizing point is also
much lower and consequently, an ordinary boiler full of
hot water contains enough heat to vaporize a considerable
quantity of bisulphide of carbon at a pretty high pressure.
In even a still greater measure the same is true of liquid
air, and this was the underlying fallacy in the case of the
tests made with liquid-air motors.


But while the inventors of these schemes may have been
honest, there is another class who deliberately set out to
perpetrate a fraud. Their machines work, and work well,
but there is always some concealed source of power, which
causes them to move. As a general rule, such inventors
form a company or corporation of unlimited " lie-ability," as
De Morgan phrases it, and then they proceed by means of
flaring prospectuses and liberal advertising, to gather in
the dupes who are attracted by their seductive promises
of enormous returns for a very small outlay. Perhaps the
most widely known of these fraudulent schemes of recent
years was the notorious Keeley motor, the originator of
which managed to hoodwink a respectable old lady, and to
draw from her enormous supplies of cash. At his death,
however, the absolutely fraudulent nature of his contri-
vances was fully disclosed, and nothing more has been


heard of his alleged discovery. But, while he lived and
was able to put forward claims based upon some apparent
results, he found plenty of fools who accepted the idea that
there is nothing impossible to science.

It is true that the Keeley motor was examined by sev-
eral committees and some very respectable gentlemen acted
in such a way as to give a seeming endorsement of the
scheme, but it must not be supposed for an instant that
any well-educated engineers and scientific men were de-
ceived by Mr. Keeley's nonsense. The very fact that he
refused to allow a complete examination of his machine by
intelligent practical men, ought to have been enough to
condemn his scheme, for if he had really made the discovery
which he claimed there would have been no difficulty in
proving it practically and thoroughly, and then he might
have formed company after company that would have re-
warded him with " wealth beyond the dreams of avarice."

The Keeley motor was not put forward as a perpetual
motion ; in these days none of these schemes is admitted
to be a perpetual motion, for that term has now become
exceedingly offensive and would condemn any invention ;
but the result is the same in the end, and the whole his-
tory of perpetual motion is permeated with frauds of this
kind, some of them having been so simple that they were
obvious to even the most unskilled observer, while others
were exceedingly complicated and most ingeniously con-
cealed. Many years ago a number of these fraudulent per-
petual-motion machines were manufactured in America
and sent over to Great Britain for exhibition, and quite a
lucrative business was done by showing them in various
towns. But the fraud was soon detected and the British
police then made it too warm for these swindlers.


Mr. Dircks, in his " Perpetuum Mobile," has given ac-
counts of quite a number of these impostures. The fol-
lowing are some of the most notable :

M. Poppe of Tubingen tells of a clock made by M. Geiser,
which was an admirable piece of mechanism and seemed to
have solved this great problem in an ingenious and simple
manner, but it deceived only for a time. When thoroughly
examined inwardly and outwardly, some time after his
death, it was found that the center props supporting its
cylinders contained cleverly constructed, hidden clock-work,
wound up by inserting a key in a small hole under the sec-

Another case was that of a man named Adams who ex-
hibited, for eight or nine days, his pretended perpetual
motion in a town in England and took in the natives . for
fifty or sixty pounds. Accident, however, led to a discov-
ery of the imposture. A gentleman, viewing the machine
took hold of the wheel or trundle and lifted it up a little,
which probably disengaged the wheels that connected the
hidden machinery in the plinth, and immediately he heard
a sound similar to that of a watch when the spring is run-
ning down. The owner was in great anger and directly
put the wheel into its proper position, and the machine
again went around as before. The circumstance was men-
tioned to an intelligent person who determined to find out
and expose the imposture. He took with him a friend to
view the machine and they seated themselves one on each
side of the table upon which the machine was placed.
They then took hold of the wheel and trundle and lifted
them up, there being some play in the pivots. Immedi-
ately the hidden spring began to run down and they con-
tinued to hold the machine in spite of the endeavors of


the owner to prevent them. When the spring had run
down, they placed the machine again on the table and
offered the owner fifty pounds if it could then set itself
going, but notwithstanding his fingering and pushing, it re-
mained motionless. A constable was sent for, the impostor
went before a magistrate and there signed a paper confess-
ing his perpetual motion to be a cheat.

In the " Mechanic's Magazine," Vol. 46, is an account
of a perpetual motion, constructed by one Redhoeffer of
Pennsylvania, which obtained sufficient notoriety to in-
duce the Legislature to appoint a committee to enquire
into its merits. The attention of Mr. Lukens was turned
to the subject, and although the actual moving cause was
not discovered, yet the deception was so ingeniously imi-
tated in a machine of similar appearance made by him and
moved by a spring so well concealed, that the deceiver him-
self was deceived and Redhoeffer was induced to believe
that Mr. Lukens had been successful in obtaining a mov-
ing power in some way in which he himself had failed,
when he had produced a machine so plausible in appear-
ance as to deceive the public.

Instances of a similar kind might be multiplied in-

The experienced mechanic who reads the descriptions
here given of the various devices which have been proposed
for the construction of a perpetual-motion machine must be
struck with the childish simplicity of the plans which have
been offered ; and those who will search the pages of the
mechanical journals of the last century or who will ex-
amine the two closely printed volumes in which Mr. Dircks
has collected almost everything- of the kind, will be aston-
ished at the sameness which prevails amongst the offerings


of these would-be inventors. Amongst the hundreds, or,
perhaps, thousands, of contrivances which have been de-
scribed, there is probably not more than a dozen kinds
which differ radically from each other ; the same arrange-
ment having been invented and re-invented over and over
again. And one of the strange features of the case is that
successive inventors seem to take no note of the failure of
those predecessors who have brought forward precisely the
same combination of parts under a very slightly different

It is true that we occasionally find a very elaborate and
apparently complicated machine, but in such cases it will be
found, on close examination, to owe its apparent complexity
to a mere multiplication of parts ; no real inventive ingen-
uity is exhibited in any case.

Another singular characteristic of almost all those who
have devoted themselves to the search for a perpetual
motion is their absolute confidence in the success of the
plans which they have brought forth. So confident are
they in the soundness of their views and so sure of the suc-
cess of their schemes that they do not even take the trouble
to test their plans but announce them as accomplished
facts, and publish their sketches and descriptions as if the
machine was already working without a hitch. Indeed, so
far was one inventor carried away with this feeling of con-
fidence in the success of his machine that he no longer
allowed himself to be troubled with any doubts as to the
machine's going- but was greatly puzzled as to what means
he should take to stop it after it had been set in motion !

These facts, which are well known to all who have been
brought into contact with this class of minds, explain many
otherwise puzzling circumstances and enable us to place


a proper value on assertions which, if not made so posi-
tively and by such apparently good authority, would be at
once condemned as deliberate falsehoods. That falsehood,
pure and simple, has formed the basis of a good many
claims of this kind, there can be no doubt, but at the same
time, it is probable that some of the claimants really de-
ceived themselves and attributed to causes other than radi-
cal errors of theory, the fact that their machines would not
continue to move.

While many have claimed the actual invention of a per-
petual motion it is very certain that not one has ever suc-
ceeded. How, then, are we to explain the statements
which have been made in regard to Orffyreus and the
claims of the Marquis of Worcester? For both of these
men it is claimed that they constructed wheels which were
capable of moving perpetually and apparently strong testi-
mony is offered in support of these assertions.

In the famous " Century of Inventions," published by
the Marquis in 1663, four years before his death, the cele-
brated 56th article reads as follows (verbatim et literatim) :

1 2 3 5 7 8 9 10 11 12

Online LibraryJohn PhinThe seven follies of science; a popular account of the most famous scientific impossibilities and the attempts which have been made to solve them. To which is added a small budget of interesting paradoxes, illusions, and marvels → online text (page 5 of 12)