A detail of a Da Vinci sketch for a perpetual motion pump.
Public domain photo.
Call them free energy machines, perpetual motion, over-unity machines, or any other name; a tiger remains a tiger no matter what color you paint his stripes. For as long as human beings have needed electricity or any kind of power source, inventive minds have sought in vain for a perfect solution: free energy forever with no fuel needed. Drawings of plans for perpetual motion machines are found throughout history for as long as we've had the science of engineering, and they continue to appear today, perhaps more than ever. Today we're going to look at some of the most famous examples of free energy machines, and address the common public perception that such miracles actually exist.
The reason that no free energy machine can work, or will ever work, should go without saying; but since the claims continue to persist, it bears a mention. A perpetual motion machine would violate the laws of thermodynamics. Strictly speaking, it is unscientific for me to say that no free energy machine will ever work; but the fundamental laws of the universe are established to such a huge degree of certainty that it's a limb upon which I'm willing to go out. Specifically, the first law of thermodynamics states that the energy of any closed system remains constant. If you take any energy out of it at all — for example, to make a rotor spin — then you must put in at least an equivalent amount of energy. The second law of thermodynamics states that entropy in any isolated system can only increase but not decrease; basically, systems seek thermal equilibrium. This law prohibits any process in which the only result is that heat moves from a region of lower temperature to a region of higher temperature, or where heat is converted purely into work. All free energy concepts are impossible because, by definition, they violate one or both laws.
The most common perpetual motion concept is a magnetic motor, some arrangement of permanent magnets intended to spin a rotor, push a ball around a path, or keep some other component in motion forever. These days they're usually blended with a powered electric motor, and the inventor claims that once it gets going, its kinetic energy exceeds the electrical energy put into it. An Internet search yields thousands of results for such machines. Many of them show videos of their machines working. So how do we reconcile this: am I saying all these guys are all liars?
No, but I am saying that anyone who thinks he's cracked free energy is wrong. In most cases, the inventor is not a formally educated physicist who understands how and why electromechanical systems work. Most inventors of free energy machines are amateurs, and are honestly (albeit profoundly) mistaken. More often than not, they present complex diagrams, notes, and calculations that they made up themselves. Some admit they don't understand everything about their machine; but all too often, they claim to have overturned laws of nature using some unique knowledge.
The earliest designs were described in the 12th century. The most notable was the Bhaskara wheel, the spokes of which were half filled with mercury and curved in such a way that the heavy liquid flowed toward the outer edge on the downstroke and toward the hub on the upstroke, thus providing leverage to keep it turning. This basic design, called the overbalanced wheel, was repeated many times with many variations over the centuries. Villard's wheel from the 13th century used hammers that hung outstretched on the downstroke and hung straight down on the upstroke. Taccola's wheel from the 15th century used hinged levers. Leonardo da Vinci even drew a number of overbalanced wheel designs, however he also knew they were impossible. In 1870, author Henry Dircks quoted Leonardo:
...By equiping such a wheel with many balances, every part, however small, which turned over as the result of percussion would suddenly cause another balance to fall, and by this the wheel would stand in perpetual movement. But by this you would be deceiving yourself... As the attachment of the heavy body is farther from the center of the wheel, the revolving movement of the wheel round its pivot will become more difficult, although the motive power may not vary.
A special place in the history of perpetual motion belongs to the German clockmaker Johann Bessler, who constructed a large number of wheels which he demonstrated in the early 1700s. His pendulum-regulated wheels were large, thick, and covered with canvas so their inner mechanicals were never visible. Bessler received plenty of notoriety and support, though many also considered him an illusionist in addition to an experienced builder of spring-powered clockworks. Bessler's most famous demonstration was apparently keeping his wheel running for 53 days inside a sealed, locked, and guarded room provided by his patron, the Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel; but since the room was windowless and it was Bessler himself who was the first to enter and last to leave the room, skeptics have remained unconvinced that the wheel actually ran the whole time.
Physics is physics, whether you're dealing with simple mechanical devices or complex machines connected to batteries and employing fanciful terminology. In 2006 a company called Steorn announced a device called the Orbo, which as far as anyone knows, was simply the classic magnetic motor. All their public demonstrations failed (except when it's been powered by a battery), yet they've persisted in claiming progress. For decades, a guy named John Searl claimed to have built a magnetic motor that he called the Searl Effect Generator, and claims to have flown around in flying saucers powered by them.
Many designs in recent years have claimed that coils of wire create electricity. The best known of these are Rodin coils, named after Marko Rodin, based on something he calls vortex mathematics, a new science invented (and understood only) by himself. A variant, created by Canadian inventor Thane Heins, is named the Perepiteia bi-toroidal transformer. Observers have noted that it's simply a conventional induction motor, with only Heins himself asserting that it produces more energy than it consumes.
As you might expect, many free energy supporters cite Nikola Tesla, based on an article he wrote in 1900 for Century Illustrated Magazine. Some have interpreted this as evidence that Tesla believed free energy was possible. But a quick read of his article reveals that he was discussing no such thing; but simply a heat sink which would transfer heat energy from any naturally warm area to any naturally cold area. Tesla was not discussing violating the second law of thermodynamics, but rather leveraging it.
A common misconception about free energy machines is that many designs are patented, but this doesn't prove their validity because patents only establish original concepts and don't make judgments about whether or not they work. This is not quite true. What is true that a large number of designs for impossible machines have been successfully patented, but these are all slips through the cracks. Perpetual motion machines are specifically not patentable, and the law is basically the same in most countries. In the United States it's called the utility requirement. In order to be patentable, a device must be useful in some way. The law explicitly excludes perpetual motion machines, on the basis of impossibility. Similarly, you can't just patent the idea of a Star Trek transporter, unless you actually build one that works.
The most-often cited case of such a patent office rejection is the one that's now cited in the Manual of Patent Examining Procedure, and it comes from 1977. Joseph Newman was something of a crank who had developed his own unconventional theories of gyroscopes and electromagnetism. When his magnetic motor was rejected by the patent office because its concept violated the laws of nature, he filed an appeal. All appeals were rejected as well. But Newman was determined, and in 1989 filed a lawsuit, Newman v Quigg, against the Commissioner of Patents and Trademarks. A district court judge appointed a special master to study Newman's prototype. The special master studied the design and operation thoroughly, and although he understood that Newman's explanation was crazy and wrong, he was convinced that the device did, in fact, put out more energy than it consumed from its batteries.
But the court was unconvinced, and sent the device to the National Bureau of Standards for testing. The Bureau disagreed with the special master, and found that the device was simply an unusual DC to AC converter, and only slightly less efficient than commercially available converters. The court ruled against Newman. But he complained that the Bureau tested his machine wrong, and appealed again; but the federal circuit court found that the district court had acted properly, and there was no cause for overruling the patent office's rejection.
No discussion of free energy machines would be complete without a mention of the conspiracy theories proposed by some of their supporters. The basic claim is that free energy machines work, but are being suppressed by the establishment to protect oil profits. Conspiracy theory websites such as InfoWars, Rense.com, and Natural News assert the existence of free energy all the time; and conspiracy theory Internet movies like Thrive say exactly the same things.
At its surface, this theory sounds plausible; but when studied a bit deeper, it falls apart. First of all, the claimed suppression doesn't seem to exist at all. Various perpetual motion machines are promoted all the time, and YouTube is bursting at the seams with videos uploaded every day showing such machines allegedly working. Whatever form this suppression takes, it doesn't seem to be very effective. A lot of the guys who have been crusading on behalf of their particular machines have been doing so (in some cases) for decades, unimpeded by either government Men in Black or Big Oil hitmen. Books remain on the shelves, videos remain on YouTube, and patents remain on file and available to the public. The claim of suppression is pretty hard to demonstrate.
Why do the honest inventors pursue perpetual motion, when any basic inquiry into the theory shows that it cannot be done? Patent attorney Gene Quinn offers one explanation:
The pursuit of the impossible, or impossible at least based on our current understandings of the laws of physics and nature, is a particularly strong draw for many. It is what causes young science fiction fans to grow up into scientists that challenge conventional thinking and chase the cool gadgets the sci-fi visionaries dreamed.
There's also a component of the age-old appetite for magically easy solutions to difficult problems. There's hardly any human desire that's as pervasive as this one. No matter what the goal is — super health, psychic superpowers, or free energy — many people will be obsessively driven to obtain them. Inevitably, these people include well-meaning non-experts who fool themselves and other non-experts with supposed solutions. The dream of free energy is here to stay.
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Free Energy Machines." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
18 Dec 2012. Web.
11 Feb 2016. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4341>
References & Further Reading
Dircks, H. Perpetuum Mobile, or the history of the search for self-motive power from the 13th to the 19th century. London: E & F Spon, 1870.
Gardner, M. "Perpetual Motion: Illusion and Reality." Foote Prints. 1 Jan. 1984, Volume 47, Number 2: 21-35.
Quinn, G. "The Patent Law of Perpetual Motion." IP Watchdog. IP Watchdog, Inc., 11 Oct. 2011. Web. 14 Dec. 2012. <http://www.ipwatchdog.com/2011/10/11/the-patent-law-of-perpetual-motion/>
Simanek, D. "Perpetual Futility: A short history of the search for perpetual motion." Donald Simanek's Pages. Lock Haven University, 21 Jun. 2003. Web. 14 Dec. 2012. <http://www.lhup.edu/~dsimanek/museum/people/people.htm>
Tesla, N. "The problem of increasing human energy: With special references to the harnessing of the sun's energy." Century Illustrated Magazine. 1 Jun. 1900, Volume 60, Issue 2.
USPTO. "Guidelines for Examination of Applications for Compliance with the Utility Requirement." Manual of Patent Examining Procedure. United States Patent & Trademark Office, 13 Sep. 2012. Web. 14 Dec. 2012. <http://www.uspto.gov/web/offices/pac/mpep/s2107.html>