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The Most Incredible Attempts at Perpetual Motion Machines

Written by Kevin Jennings

For thousands of years, people have attempted to create perpetual motion machines without success. The reason for the lack of success of course is that such a device would violate the laws of physics. While early attempts at perpetual motion were for the sake of curiosity and invention, as well as to create interesting novelties, later attempts were more pragmatic in nature. If a device could be built that operated with greater than 100% efficiency, it would be a free source of renewable energy. Again, this almost certainly isn’t possible, and the quest for perpetual motion is like the alchemic quest for the philosopher’s stone. Despite all science pointing to it being an impossibility, the incredible magnitude of such a potential discovery is too much for many curious minded individuals to resist. Today we’ll be looking at some of the most incredible attempts at perpetual motion.

The Beverly Clock


              The Beverly Clock resides within the Department of Physics at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. The clock was created by Arthur Beverly, a man with very humble upbringings. Arthur grew up on a farm in Scotland, and at the age of 14 became an apprentice watchmaker. He was quite skilled as a lensmaker, and began working with scientists after he made a set of microscope lenses for the University of Aberdeen.

              At the age of 30, Arthur moved to Australia during the Victorian gold rush. His efforts in the gold fields must not have been successful, because he quickly went back to watchmaking. After a few more years, he moved on to New Zealand and opened his own watchmaking business in 1858. Just 6 years later, at the age of 42, Arthur would complete work on the Beverly Clock. Once the mechanical clock was finished, Arthur wound it. That day in 1864 was the only time it was ever wound, and it is still running to this day making it one of the world’s longest running science experiments.

              So how could a mechanical clock run continuously for 158 years without being manually wound? It actually hasn’t. Though the clock is still running, there have been times when it has stopped. While the Beverly Clock can theoretically run forever without being wound, it technically has an external power source: temperature. The clock is not a closed system and therefore not a true perpetual motion machine, but it’s certainly the closest we’ve ever got to one.

              The clock works because there is an airtight box inside it that expands and contracts throughout the day based on changes in temperature. This pushes on a diaphragm that lifts a one pounds weight that winds the clock as it falls. As long as it is raised one inch each day the clock will continue to run. All it takes to raise the weight that one inch is a change in temperature of 6 °C (10.8 °F) over the course of the day. That’s a very small change in temperature from the coldest point of the day to the hottest, but sometimes it just doesn’t happen and the clock stops. When the temperature fluctuates more it will begin working again without needing to be manually wound, but it will still have lost time and need to be adjusted.

              The Beverly Clock is a brilliant design and was the first ever atmospheric clock, but it runs at less than 100% efficiency and thus is not a perpetual motion machine, despite being an incredibly impressive feat of design. And because the clock is not a closed system and requires changes in temperature to power itself, it quite literally would not function in a vacuum.

Crookes Radiometer


              The previous attempt at perpetual motion couldn’t work inside a vacuum, so here’s a device that is a vacuum, or at least a partial vacuum. The device was created by British chemist and physicist Sir William Crookes in 1873. He was a pioneer of vacuum tube technology, so it’s no wonder that he would be the one to create a vacuum sealed perpetual motion machine.

              The Crookes Radiometer looks a bit like a horizontal windmill trapped inside of a light bulb. Despite the glass bulb being air tight and a near vacuum, the two-toned panels inside undergo a continuous rotation. Unlike most attempts at perpetual motion which are deliberate efforts, often consuming the creator’s entire life, Crookes’ discovery was entirely an accident.

              One day Crookes was trying to get extremely accurate measurements of weight on small samples for his chemistry work, so he wanted to weigh them inside a partial vacuum to reduce any interference on the measurements caused by air currents. While doing this, he noticed that the readings would change whenever sunlight shone directly on the balance. His radiometer was built as an experiment to test the phenomena he had observed.

              There were several theories as to why the vanes would rotate, with Crookes original guess being incorrect. It took six years before scientists finally arrived at the correct answer. The vanes each featured one black side and one silver side, all oriented in the same direction. Because darker colours absorb more heat than lighter ones, the black sides of the vanes would heat up more when exposed to light. The air molecules inside the bulb that came into contact with the hotter black side would also heat up and become agitated, creating a force against the vanes. Because it was a near vacuum, there were enough air molecules to generate the force required to start the contraption spinning, but not enough for air resistance to overcome the force put upon the vanes. The “sweet spot” where there is neither too little nor too much air to prevent the spinning motion is fairly precise.

              While the initial Crookes Radiometer was able to work by using vanes with one light side and one dark side, this was proven not to be necessary. In 2009, researchers at the University of Texas were able to replicate the effect using vanes that were all black. Instead of relying on colour to make one side hotter than the other, it utilized curved vanes, whereas previous efforts had all used flat ones. Because of the curvature of the structures, the convex side of the vanes would heat up more than the concave side thus creating the same effect.

              The Crookes Radiometer has the ability to continue rotating forever without any internal power source, but once again it is not a closed system and requires external forces for its continued operation. Many light mills have been built since Crookes’ original, though they serve little purpose outside of classroom demonstrations or as a novelty. But if this is the sort of novelty that appeals to you, you can find them with all different colours of glass bulbs on Amazon for around $30.

Sponge Conveyer Belt

            What makes this entry so incredible is less the idea itself, and more that a respected scientist and inventor was absolutely convinced that it would work. Sir William Congreve was an inventor of quite some renown, enough to be called Sir. Among his many inventions were a colour printing press and a new form of steam engine. Most notable of his inventions was the Congreve rocket, an early form of rocket artillery for military use. For an inventor of such ability, one would think he would have better things to do than focus on the fool’s errand that is perpetual motion.

              But he didn’t, at least at the end of his life. While recovering from an illness, Congreve drew up plans for a sponge powered perpetual motion design. The most impressive thing about his design is that it took design elements from already disproven perpetual motion machines and combined them all into one big, soggy mess. His machine would combine the properties of an unbalanced wheel, a plank and chain, and the capillary effect. Individually none of these ideas created perpetual motion, but maybe, just maybe by combining a bunch of insufficient ideas it would create something truly remarkable.

              The proposed machine feature a conveyer belt covered in sponges. On the outside of the sponges was another belt of heavy weights. The sponges would travel under the bottom of the machine through the water reservoir before being lifted onto the conveyer. Once on the conveyer, the weights would squeeze the water out of the sponges to make them lighter. At the top of the conveyer, a hose supplying water through the capillary effect would soak the sponges again, making them heavy enough to drag the rest of the belt down.

              If that sounds confusing and needlessly complicated, it absolutely is. Congreve never built this machine himself, nor did anyone else as far as is known. Anyone with the ability to construct such a machine should immediately understand that this isn’t going to work and is relying on already disproven and failed methods of perpetual motion. Since Congreve designed this while recovering from being sick it would be nice to just chalk it up to being some sort of fever dream, but he actually defended the idea. At his own expense, Congreve published a pamphlet to defend the principles behind the machine and put forward his belief that it would absolutely work. Perhaps this was just done to try to save face, but it is truly incredible that such an accomplished scientist and inventor would not only design but then defend such a ridiculous contraption.

Oxford Electric Bell


              The Oxford Electric Bell, also known as the Clarendon Dry Pile, is not what most people would think of when they think of perpetual motion devices. The reason is that it is operated by a battery. So why are we talked about it today? Because the bell has been ringing almost nonstop for at least the last 182 years.

              The bell was constructed by instrument makers Watkins and Hill. It is believed to have been constructed in 1825, but there’s no way to know for sure. What is known is that it was purchased in 1840 by clergyman and professor of physics Reverend Robert Walker, and it has been on display at Oxford University in England since then. It is located adjacent to the Clarendon Laboratory, hence the alternate name.

              The term “dry pile” comes from the type of battery used. It is the predecessor to the modern dry cell battery, and it is constructed by assembling a pile of discs of different alternating materials to create electrical charges. The Oxford Electric Bell has two dry piles, each above a bell to which it is connected. Between the two bells is a 4 mm metal sphere that acts as the clapper. When the metal sphere comes into contact with one of the bells, it received a tiny electrostatic charge that repels it, sending it into the other bell. This process has repeated over 10 billion times since it’s been on display. The apparatus has operated nearly continuously, with only small occasional periods of interruption resulting from exceptionally high humidity.

              It may not be perpetual, but how exactly has the Guinness World Record holder for most durable battery been able to remain functional for nearly two centuries, and how much longer will the bells continue to ring? The answer to both questions is: we have absolutely no idea. There are no schematics or notes to indicate exactly what the battery is made out of. All we have is the device itself. The two dry piles are each coated in a layer of molten sulfur to protect from atmospheric disturbances. This leaves them looking more like giant wax candles than batteries, and makes it impossible to see the inner workings of the battery.

              There is speculation as to what materials the battery is made out of based on other contemporary research, however there are no other existing batteries known to have run for nearly as long so it would stand to reason that these batteries had something different about them. If you’re wondering why researches don’t just disassemble the batteries to see what they’re made out of, well that would ruin the world’s longest running experiment. Oxford University has waited 182 years for the bell to stop ringing, surely they can wait just a few years longer. Or maybe a few centuries longer, we genuinely have no idea.

              On the bright side, the Oxford Electric Bell is now kept behind two layers of glass so the ringing is virtually inaudible rather than being a constant source of insanity for Oxford’s students of physics.

See-Saw Balance

            How incredible is this device created in 2016 by YouTuber veproject1? Incredible enough to get nearly 4 million views, about 40 times more than a regular video for the channel. The machine is incredible simple. It features a simple wooden frame placed on top of a wooden plank. The plank is then balanced on a wooden dowel, and two balls are placed inside the apparatus. You can then watch the see-saw rock back and forth as the balls roll from one end of their chamber to the other.

              According to the video, it works because “the center of mass of the system is continually changing. Each ball pushes the opposite side of the board causing the oscillation.” This, of course, is a complete and total fabrication. How it actually works is by either strings or more likely pistons connected to the bottom of the plank that can actually be seen in the video itself if someone is looking careful. The see-saw rocks in perfect rhythm, regardless of the actual position of the balls.

              Incredibly, despite being an obvious hoax, many people who saw this video believed it was a real machine. Quite possibly millions of people did. Like with aliens, ghosts, or other paranormal happenings, the appeal of what it being real could mean is too much for our rational brains to overcome, even when the true explanation is right in front of our eyes.

              The simple fact is that true perpetual motion machines will never exist. Devices like the Beverly Clock and Crookes Radiometer show that it is possible to build a machine that can harness outside forces to power itself, but those forces still need to exist. There will never be a closed system device that can run at 100% or greater than 100% efficiency, because the violates the laws of conservation of energy.

              The United States government is so sure of this, as they should be, that the US Patent Office no longer accepts patent submissions for perpetual motion machines. If you’d like to learn more about that, you can find the 1940 short “Something For Nothing” featuring cartoonist and inventor of wacky and impractical devices Rube Goldberg discussing patents and the impossibility of perpetual motion devices…and also discussing how great and limitless fossil fuel is, because somebody had to pay to get the video made, and that somebody was the automotive industry.

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