Science » Technologies and discoveries

The wheel keeps rotating......

According to historical documents, ancient Greeks and Romans  were indifferent to the concept  of a perpetual motion machine.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