According to historical documents, ancient Greeks and Romans were indifferent to the concept of a perpetual motion machine.
Greeks knew mechanics too well, and Romans were quite happy with their slaves. Both civilizations appeared to follow a well-known maxim nihil ex nihilo, which came down from Hellenic philosophers to those of Ancient Rome and later emerged in medieval European treatises meaning 'nothing will produce nothing'.
European mechanics borrowed the idea of a perpetual motion machine from Hindus. It was first mentioned in the 12th century, when the Indian mathematician and astronomer Bhaskara invented a perpetual motion machine. It was a wheel which had vessels partly filled with mercury and fixed at a certain angle following the wheel’s curvature. The rotation of the wheel made mercury flow from one side of the vessels to the other forcing the wheel to continue rotation. It seems that Bhaskara borrowed the design of his perpetual motion machine from the well-known circle of perpetual return and never made an attempt to construct the device described by him. Maybe it was not important for Bhaskara to know whether his mechanism was feasible or not, most likely it served for him just as a convenient mathematical abstraction.
However, European mechanics having familiarized with Bhaskara’s works a few decades later, without immersing in the Indian philosophy, enthusiastically accepted his expedient design.
One of them, Villand de Honnecourt, who lived in the 13th century, became prominent as the author of a slightly modified perpetual motion machine . In fact, his design was almost a replica of Bhaskara's wheel, but instead of mercury Honnecourt employed an odd number of little hammers. The rotation would make hammers strike the wheel and keep it going.
We do not know, whether Honnecourt did construct his machine or not, but he often demonstrated contempt to his 'unlucky competitors'. He remained confident that his machine not only would stop, but could also do useful work such as operating a saw or lifting weights.
Leonardo da Vinci manifested a profound interest in this problem, too. Although his attitude to perpetual motion machines was rather skeptical, he had devoted plenty of time to criticize variations on the wheel of Bhaskara and to a detailed analysis of mistakes made by his compatriot Francisco di Georgio. Complex systems incorporating pumps and mill wheels looked fine on paper and even worked, but, alas, in fact were not perpetual motion machines. Two hundred years after Leonardo’s death such a system was thought commonplace as conceptually impossible. Yet, in the 1950s the idea to use water as a source of infinite energy was revived in Victor Shauberger's endeavours. However, the child was again stillborn.
Not all, however, blindly supported the concept of perpetual motion. Dr. Robert Fludd (1574-1637) the famous philosopher, mystic and probably a member of the half-clandestine brotherhood of Rosicrucians in his treatise " De Simila Naturae ", making references to an anonymous Italian inventor, presented a drawing of a water engine, but questioned its ability to operate. By a twist of fate, Fludd is regarded, by and large, as a proponent for the idea of perpetual motion, and sometimes the authorship of drawings in his books is wrongly attributed to him.
The interest of the European science in magnets could not but be reflected in the design of devices claimed as perpetual motion machines. Bishop John Wilkins of Chester (1614-72), the renowned scientist and the first secretary of the British Royal Society, over many years had been cherishing the dream of building a perpetual motion machine using magnets. To support his concept, Wilkins made a drawing of the machine, which featured a magnet, a steel ball and special ramps along which the ball first ran downwards due to gravitation and then went upwards attracted to the magnet. And though he failed to make a successful model, Wilkins believed in a perpetual motion machine based on his theory till his end. In his opinion, a little more effort was needed to score a success.
Development of mechanical perpetual motion machines reached its peak in the works of Johann Bessler (1680-1745) also known as Orffyreus (the latinized cryptogram of ‘Bessler’). The fate of Bessler, notorious for his bad temper, offers a good illustration of a need for the introduction of the patent law. The inventor wanted to sell his perpetual motion machine for one hundred thousand thalers (equivalent to about two millions dollars of nowadays ), but agreed to reveal its details only after selling it. Fear that its secret could be stolen made Johann Bessler repeatedly destroy the drawings and prototypes and flee to other towns. No wonder that for many people he was a swindler or madman.
Even if Bessler was a swindler, he was an ingenious, though unlucky one. The inventor allowed nobody to have a look inside the mechanisms designed by him, at the same time willingly displaying them to all and sundry.
In 1719, Johann Bessler, under an assumed name of Orffyreus, published his treatise “Perpetuum Mobile Triumphans " in which, inter alia, he claimed that he managed to create "a dead substance that is not just a self-moving mechanism , but may also be used for lifting weights and doing some kind of work".
Two years earlier occurred the most impressive demonstration of Bessler’s invention. A machine with a 3.5 m shaft in diameter was actuated on November 17, 1717. On that day the room, where the model was placed, was sealed. It was opened again on January 4, 1718 and the wheel was still rotating at the same speed as several weeks ago.
During seven years of active experiments (1712-19) Bessler had built over three hundred models claimed as perpetual motion machines of two types. In the first type model, the wheel rotated only in one direction and to stop its rotation great strength was needed . In the other type model, the shaft could rotate in any direction and be stopped rather easily. Bessler’s machine was not only self-sustaining but had enough energy to perform any work, for example, to lift weights.
However, neither numerous certificates issued by independent commissions, nor public demonstrations brought Bessler money required to establish a school for engineers, which was his long cherished dream. Four thousand thalers lumpsum and a house received as a gift from the landgrave Karl, the owner of Weissenstein castle, were the only benefits Johann Bessler got from the authorities.
Translated by: ZM