The idea of a “perpetual motion machine” is one that has proved an irresistible lure for humanity for centuries. The concept has attracted countless numbers of greedy fortune-seekers, idealistic humanitarians, amateur mechanics, scientific geniuses, cranks, and con-artists. All were doomed to failure.
However, there was at least one person who made anything close to a credible claim of having achieved that goal. He was Johann Ernest Elias Bessler, who went by the considerably snappier name of “Orffryeus.” If he was right—and no one ever indisputably proved him wrong—he just may have done the impossible.
Orffryeus was born in Saxony in 1680. He was something of a polymath, turning his hand to theology, medicine, and painting, although he soon realized his true vocation was in the realm of mechanics. Around 1712, he began exhibiting a number of self-moving wheels of various sizes.
His contraptions attracted a good deal of attention. Unfortunately, it was virtually all of the negative variety. His machines were almost automatically dismissed as fraudulent. This was partly due to the natural human instinct to believe that because something had never been done before, it could never be done, and partly due to Orffryeus’ frankly obnoxious personality. Like so many people skilled with machinery, he had absolutely no talent dealing with human beings. He evidently so rubbed onlookers the wrong way, they did not want to think of him as anything other than an impostor. The result was that his creations failed to get the in-depth, serious study they possibly deserved.
In 1715, Orffryeus threw down the gauntlet to his detractors. He built his largest machine to date—it was six feet in diameter and a foot thick. He presented it to a committee of learned and respectable men and invited them to inspect it to their heart’s content. After examining the machine for nearly two months, they issued a certificate proclaiming it to be a genuine perpetual motion machine, capable of raising a box of stones weighing seventy pounds.
Orffryeus’ many enemies dismissed this report and continued to denounce him as a fraud, who claimed to do things that were clearly “contrary to nature.” And his machine continued to revolve.
The following year, Orffryeus settled in Hesse-Cassel, where he won the patronage of the local Landgrave. He was given the post of Town Councillor, and rooms in the Ducal castle of Weissenstein.
In 1717, for the benefit of his new protector, Orffryeus built his last and most impressive wheel, a machine twelve feet in diameter. A Professor Gravesend who examined the device later told Sir Isaac Newton of his conclusions. He wrote, “The inventor has a turn for mechanics, but is far from being a profound mathematician, and yet his machine hath something in it prodigiously astonishing, even though it should be an imposition.” After noting that Orffryeus forbade anyone from examining the internal parts of his machine, “lest anyone should rob him of his secret,” the Professor concluded that he was “firmly persuaded that nothing from without the wheel in the least contributes to its motion.”
A Baron Fischer, who was architect to the Emperor of Austria, also examined Orffryeus’ wheel. He stated, “Although I am very incredulous about things which I do not understand…I am quite persuaded that there exists no reason why this machine should not have the name of Perpetual Motion given to it.”
|Diagram of one of the "Orffryeus Wheels"|
The wheel remained on public exhibition for several months. It was examined carefully by a great many scientists, who all concluded that, somehow, Orffryeus had constructed the real deal. In October 1717, the wheel was transported to a room in Weissenstein “where there were no walls contiguous to it, and where one might go freely round it on every side.” When the wheel was set into motion, the Landgrave had all the doors and windows leading to the room securely fastened, with his seals placed over the locks.
Two weeks later, the seals were broken and the room unlocked. The wheel was still moving. The room was resealed as before. The wheel was then left untouched until January 1718.
When the room was opened, it was found that the wheel was spinning as regularly as before…
Probably the crowning irony of this story is the fact that, if Orffryeus is to be believed, he had created one of the most amazing inventions in human history—and he did not seem to have the slightest idea what to do with it. He apparently made little or no money off his exhibitions. He wished to keep the secret of his wheel to himself until he could profit from his discovery, but his efforts in that line were oddly muddled and half-hearted. If Orffryeus was merely a con man, he was a singularly poor one.
In 1714, England had offered a reward of £20,000 for anyone who could present a way to find longitude at sea. Orffryeus’ supporters proposed that a company should be formed in London to buy the secret to his wheel’s success. If this proved to indeed be the secret to perpetual motion, they felt sure the Crown would be happy to lavishly reward the inventor. If the wheel was proved fraudulent, the money would be returned.
The plan came to nothing, thanks to Orffryeus himself. He became angered by an examination of his machine that he erroneously felt was an effort to steal the secrets of the wheel without paying him for it. In one of history’s more notable acts of self-destruction, he smashed his wheel to bits in a fit of paranoid rage at this “impertinent curiosity.” One assumes he regretted this remarkably stupid act when he learned the next day that this last report on his machine had been entirely favorable.
After this virtual career suicide, Orffryeus gradually disappeared from public view. In 1727, it was reported that he was at work on a new wheel, but if this was the case, there is no record of it ever being exhibited. Orffryeus died in complete obscurity in 1745. Showing the same serio-comic weirdness that dogged his entire career, he fell to his death from a windmill he was constructing.
Orffryeus has gone down in history as either a particularly talented impostor, or sincere, but deluded madman. However, what we know of his machines leaves nagging little doubts about these harsh assessments. If he was a fraud, how did he do it? The tales that a person was somehow concealed inside the mechanism can be dismissed by the fact that the wheel was locked in a room for three months. Could he have operated the wheels through a hidden clock-spring? Doubtful. Any spring capable of moving a twelve-foot wheel for weeks on end would be too enormous to be concealed. Very many learned and honest men gave Orffryeus’ wheel a thorough and unbiased examination, and pronounced it to be genuine. They believed he had somehow found the secret to perpetual motion. But if he had, how on earth did this quarrelsome, unbalanced, utterly ordinary man make a discovery that had eluded so many other, worthier inventors?
Orffryeus himself made only one attempt to explain his wheel to the public. Unfortunately, it did absolutely nothing to clarify the mystery. His 1719 pamphlet describing his “Triumphant Orffyrean Perpetual Motion,” is an irritatingly vague, rambling work, one that seems rather more concerned with insulting his many enemies than with describing his invention. It reads like a man trying to describe forces he himself does not completely understand. He could only state that the secret of "everlasting motion" depended upon weights placed in such a way that they "never attain equilibrium." This gravity-defying process is considered by modern physicists to simply be against all laws of nature.
There is no reason to doubt that Orffryeus genuinely believed he had found the trick to perpetual motion—he just didn’t quite know how he did it. His pamphlet is reminiscent of an “idiot savant” struggling to explain how he instantly adds long strings of numbers in his head, or plays on the piano a Beethoven sonata he has only heard once. Or, possibly, considering his extreme paranoia, Orffryeus was being deliberately obfuscating.
Whether he was fraud, lunatic, or genius—or some combination of the three—Orffryeus remains one of the more intriguing oddities found in the world of science.