"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Perpetual Motion of Johann Bessler

Johann Bessler

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.


  1. I'd never heard of Bessler. He seems genuine, though whether his machine was, who can say. Someone has to be the person who invented this machine or that. Why could he have not been the one to invent a perpetual motion machine? The fact that he never tried to profit by it suggests that he may have been the real - if very unbusinesslike - deal.

  2. "[H]ow on earth did this quarrelsome, unbalanced, utterly ordinary man make a discovery that had eluded so many other, worthier inventors?"

    There is only one solution (bwa-hah-ha) . . . aliens with a Tessla device, streaming electricity down from their secret satellite base on the dark side of the moon.

  3. Rupert Gould has an essay on this in Oddities or Enigmas (can't remember which) in which he explains how it could have been a hoax.

    1. I read that essay--it was where I first heard of Bessler. (The book was "Oddities.") Gould offered a few possible solutions, but he noted that each explanation had its flaws. At the end, he basically threw up his hands and labeled Bessler "an unsolved problem."

  4. I had read the story of Bessler's perpetual motion wheel many years ago, but you have added a lot of information I was previously unaware of. Now I'm even more intrigued! All I can think is that maybe it was generating enough electricity to power itself for at least 3 months in some way. If he wasn't a fraud (and he doesn't appear to have been), he must have stumbled onto an important discovery years ahead of his time.

    1. I honestly don't know what to make of the guy. Unhinged though he may have been, I don't believe he was a deliberate fraud. It occurred to me that Bessler was possibly an "accidental hoaxer"--that he devised some sort of mechanism that he erroneously thought was "perpetual motion"--but, then, you'd think the scientists who examined his wheel would have caught that.

  5. He sounds as if he suffered from Asperger's Syndrome, a condition on the Autistic scale of disorders. I would not put it totally past him to have figured something like this out; then, behave in a completely contradictory way.

  6. I've studied Bessler and his wheels for many years and, like most who have, I've concluded that he actually did construct working "perpetual motion" wheels. However, I don't think they were "perpetual" in the absolute sense of term; that is, eventually, they would stop running when their unconventional internal energy source was exhausted.

    I think, basically, he had found a unique arrangement of weights on the ends of wooden levers that would keep its center of gravity always located on the wheel's descending side even when it was rotating and it was that maintained imbalance that provided the torque that drove a wheel. In order to do this, the weights on the ascending side would swing in toward the axle for about half of their vertical ascent and then swing back out toward a wheel's periphery for the rest of the ascent up to the top of the wheel. On the descending side, however, they spent most of their time near the periphery of the wheel. This produces an interesting situation where, even though a weighted drops through the same distance that it rises, it can still lose a net amount of gravitational energy which is then used to increase the rotational kinetic energy of all parts of the wheel, including the weighted levers themselves, about the axle.

    It turns out that the momentary drawing near to the axle on the ascending side results in the average velocity of the ascent of the weighted levers being a little bit less than the average velocity of their descent on the opposite side of the wheel. Thus, at any instant, the weights on the descending side of the wheel are losing a little bit more gravitational energy than is being gained back by the weights on the ascending side. That means that, during every wheel rotation, each one of the wheel's eight weighted levers was losing a net amount of gravitational potential energy and all parts of the wheel were gaining that in the form of rotational kinetic energy about the axle which would increase the wheel's rate of rotation if it was running freely. That lost gravitational energy did not come out of nowhere, however. It had to be paid for by a continuous loss of mass of the weighted levers themselves since, as was shown by Einstein, mass and energy are identical. The amount of mass lost by a one directional wheel's eight weighted levers only works out to about a small fraction of a picogram. But, considering the total estimated mass of all of the eight weighted levers that could have been in the hundreds of pounds for Bessler's largest wheels, such a wheel, if not performing external work by operating external machinery attached to its axle, might have been able to run continuously for over a BILLION years before all of its weighted levers became massless. No, such a wheel is not "perpetual" in the absolute sense of the word, but it's close enough for all practical purposes to deserve that label, imo.

    Considering the interest in Bessler's wheels, I'm confident that the secret design he found will soon be found and duplicates of his incredible invention will turn again. They will be seen to not violate the Conservation of Energy law and to demonstrate the Equivalence of mass and energy. And, finally, Johann Bessler will achieve the recognition in the history of science that he deserves.

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  8. Those interested in seeing the secret of the mechanics used in Bessler's "self-moving" wheels should find this short video of interest:


  9. How long have people been working out how gravity could be used as a device for self generated output, basically in order to get gravity to work in a self generated device, whatever goes down would have to go up more in order to go down to get more to go up more.
    Now: unless gravity could be reduced on the way back up, or 2 forms of input to counter the counter reaction force. where 2 - 1 = 1.
    The best thing to do is not worry about if it worked or did not work. Bessler died with the machine and took it with him when he went. Anyway a self generating gravity machine would never pay for the amount of cost to build and be so big for very little output energy. Who would want something the size of a battle ship to power there house? hundred million could buy a lot of electric power over the grid. Bessler - What is your point? now days. In 1775 maybe, no now. Thanks, Tom


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