A Brief History Of Perpetual Motion

Conservation of energy isn’t just a good idea: It is the law. In particular, it is the first law of thermodynamics. But, apparently, a lot of people don’t really get that because history is replete with inventions that purport to run forever or produce more energy than they consume. Sometimes these are hoaxes, and sometimes they are frauds. We expect sometimes they are also simple misunderstandings.

We thought about this when we ran across the viral photo of an EV with a generator connected to the back wheel. Of course, EVs and hybrids do try to reclaim power through regenerative braking, but that’s recovering a fraction of the energy already spent. You can never pull more power out than you put in, and, in fact, you’ll pull out substantially less.

Not a New Problem

If you think this is a scourge of social media and modern vehicles, you’d be wrong. Leonardo da Vinci, back in 1494, said:

Oh ye seekers after perpetual motion, how many vain chimeras have you pursued? Go and take your place with the alchemists.

There was a rumor in the 8th century that someone built a “magic wheel,” but this appears to be little more than a myth. An Indian mathematician also claimed to have a wheel that would run forever, but there’s little proof of that, either. It was probably an overbalanced wheel where the wheel spins due to weight and gravity with enough force to keep the wheel spinning.

Villard’s machine

An architect named Villard de Honnecourt drew an impractical perpetual motion machine in the 13th century that was also an overbalanced wheel. His device, and other similar ones, would require a complete lack of friction to work. Even Leonardo da Vinci, who did not think such a device was possible, did some sketches of overbalanced wheels, hoping to find a solution.

Types of Machines

There isn’t just a single kind of perpetual motion machine. A type I machine claims to produce work without any input energy. For example, a wheel that spins for no reason would be a type I machine.

Type II machines violate the second law of thermodynamics. For example, the “zeromoter” — developed in the 1800s by John Gamgee, used ammonia and a piston to move by boiling and cooling ammonia. While the machine was, of course, debunked, Gamgee has the honor of being the inventor of the world’s first mechanically frozen ice rink in 1844.

Type III machines claim to use some means to reduce friction to zero to allow a machine to work that would otherwise run down. For example, you can make a flywheel with very low friction bearings, and with no load, it may spin for years. However, it will still spin down.

Often, machines that claim to be perpetual either don’t really last forever — like the flywheel — or they actually draw power from an unintended source. For example, in 1760, James Cox and John Joseph Merlin developed Cox’s timepiece and claimed it ran perpetually. However, it actually drew power from changes in barometric pressure.


These inventions were often mere frauds. E.P. Willis in 1870 made money from his machine but it actually had a hidden source of power. So did John Ernst Worrell Keely’s induction resonance motion motor that actually used hidden air pressure tubes to power itself. Harry Perrigo, an MIT graduate, also demonstrated a perpetual motion machine to the US Congress in 1917. That device had a secret battery.

However, some inventors probably weren’t frauds. Nikola Tesla was certainly a smart guy. He claimed to have found a principle that would allow for the construction of a Type II perpetual motion machine. However, he never built it.

There have been hosts of others, and it isn’t always clear who really thought they had a good idea and how many were just out to make a buck. But some people have created machines as a joke. Dave Jones, in 1981, created a bicycle wheel in a clear container that never stopped spinning. But he always said it was a fake and that he had built it as a joke. Adam Savage looks at that machine in the video below. He wrote his secret in a sealed envelope before he died, and supposedly, only two people know how it works.


Most perpetual machines try to use force from magnets. Gravity is also a popular agent of action. Other machines depend on buoyancy (like the one in the video below) or gas expansion and condensation.

The US Patent and Trademark Office manual of patent examining practice says:

With the exception of cases involving perpetual motion, a model is not ordinarily required by the Office to demonstrate the operability of a device. If operability of a device is questioned, the applicant must establish it to the satisfaction of the examiner, but he or she may choose his or her own way of so doing.

The UK Patent Office also forbids perpetual motion machine patents. The European Patent Classification system has classes for “alleged perpetua mobilia”

Of course, having a patent doesn’t mean something works; it just means the patent office thought it was original and can’t figure out why it wouldn’t work. Consider Tom Bearden’s motionless electromagnetic generator, which claims to generate power without any external input. Despite widespread denouncement of the supposed operating principle — Bearden claimed the device extracted vacuum energy — the patent office issued a patent in 2002.

The Most Insidious

The best machines are ones that use energy from some source that isn’t apparent. For example, a Crookes radiometer looks like a lightbulb with a little propeller inside. Light makes it move. It is also a common method to use magnetic fields to move something without obviously spinning it. For example, the egg of Columbus (see the video below) is a magnet, and a moving magnetic field makes the egg spin. This isn’t dissimilar from a sealed pump where a magnet turns on the dry side and moves the impeller, which is totally immersed in liquid.

Some low-friction systems, like the flywheel, can seem to be perpetual motion machines if you aren’t patient enough. But eventually, they all wear down.

Crazy or Conspiracy?

Venues like YouTube are full of people claiming to have free energy devices that also claim to be suppressed by “the establishment”. While we hate to be on the wrong side of history if someone does pull it off, we are going to go out on a limb and say that there can’t be a true perpetual motion machine. Unless you cheat, of course.

This is the place we usually tell you to get hacking and come up with something cool. But, sadly, for this time we’ll entreat you to spend your time on something more productive, like a useless box or put Linux on your Commodore 64.

65 thoughts on “A Brief History Of Perpetual Motion

  1. I have a friend who grew up as an orphan in an Eastern European country, with limited educational opportunities. He just can’t seem to grasp the idea that the laws of thermodynamics show that perpetual or free energy is impossible.

    But, at least he has the excuse of a spotty education. Many of the perpetual motion cranks had every opportunity to pick up the fundamentals in school.


    1. It’s… tricky. One of the problems with the perpetual motion cranks is that if you go far enough in physics, you realize you can hand-wave through the conservation of energy problem by stating that it’s pulling energy from somewhere *else*. (And the reason this ends up being convincing is… uh… that’s what people actually do when the laws of physics are incomplete, and, well, they are).

      Which, of course, is the exact same crap that the EmDrive/reactionless drive/etc. pull. And they’re convincing enough to get actual serious money from people! Enough to put a friggin’ satellite in orbit!

      The statement that I always give is that anytime someone starts mentioning zero-point or dark energy or Casimir or I dunno, quantum unicorn fairy dust, they’re just nutjobs. No one’s going to discover a way of pulling energy from some weird quantum mechanical process in their basement.

      The big problem, of course, is that the USPTO is behind the times on this, and needs a similar patent restriction on reactionless drives, as well.

      1. The intense desire to believe emdrive which I saw from so many people was an interesting experience. It’s abstracted enough that people want to believe, want to pull out tropes like “people never thought it was possible to travel faster than sound until they did” (not true) and all sorts of other appeals. Emdrive was pushing against an assymetrical quantum vacuum fluctuation or whatever other ad-hoc star trek explanation. Of course it was just a slightly flawed testing rig showing a thousandth of the weight of a feather’s worth of thrust caused by thermal effects.

        1. “Emdrive was pushing against an assymetrical quantum vacuum fluctuation or whatever”

          Whenever I try to explain to people that the EmDrive stuff was nonsense, I always change their random explanation to something including ridiculousness (like unicorn, fairy, magic, etc.) rather than parroting their garbage to make it clear that it’s just snake oil.

          The huge problem is that there’s enough extraordinarily poorly written high-end physics out there (including a lot that’s ** published! **) that you can fool people.

          There’s something similar happening now with the people mucking around with “warp drive” crap, although at least at this point it’s just simulation/math stuff and there’s *some* value to it in understanding what the limitations of the simplistic energy conditions in GR. I guarantee someone’ll start pushing for funding for small-scale experimental stuff or something, and then it’ll go full on crazy-land again. (Already happened once, and there’s one guy who tried to get funding for a warp drive using antifreeze, swear to God).

      2. >you realize you can hand-wave through the conservation of energy problem

        Not really. Sure, you could pull out zero-point energy and have weird stuff happen at the Planck scale, but that still doesn’t extrapolate into anti-gravity technology or free energy generators in the macroscopic scale. If it were possible at our everyday scale, the universe wouldn’t even exist because everything could blow up at any moment.

        It’s just an explanation that the audience doesn’t understand, so it’s just as much bovine excrement as saying you’re collecting “magnetic energy”.

        1. Yes, that’s almost literally what I’m saying.

          “It’s just an explanation that the audience doesn’t understand”

          It’s not that it’s just an explanation they don’t understand. It’s modifying something they’ve heard from *trusted* sources, and so they figure it must be true as well.

          If you come out and say “vacuum unicorn fairy sweat” they’re not going to buy it. But when someone comes out and says stuff like “zero point energy, like the Casimir effect” or “if you fully integrate Mach’s principle” they might go and look that stuff up, and they’ll find god-awful stuff written that leads them to believe it might not be garbage.

          “and have weird stuff happen at the Planck scale”

          You don’t need to go nearly that high. There’s this common idea that weird strange universe-breaking stuff needs to happen at the Planck scale because at that point both quantum mechanics *and* general relativity are wrong, but in fact GR is *absolutely* wrong at lower energies than that and quantum mechanics is too. The classic example is the equation of state of neutron stars, which is at an energy scale way below Planck but it’s a giant pile of who the eff knows.

          Thankfully, the scales you’d need to get to “weird unknown effects” are still large enough that Random Basement Guy isn’t going to be able to do it, but the reason they get away with it is that they claim it’s a small-scale demonstrator type thing. Like, oh, it’s micronewtons because it’s small, I just need to build a $10M facility.

          That’s where a lot of these wacko guys like the warp drive types have been sitting.

          1. Pat:
            Crypto will _eventually_ solve the problem of government owned money printing presses.
            But Governments will NEVER accept that that’s a problem. They think we should trust them. Silly Fers would be funny, if they weren’t covered in blood.

          2. “Crypto will _eventually_ solve the problem of government owned money printing presses.”

            Yup, there’s the scam. The instant you live in a country and agree to its rules, there are exactly two ways to solve a problem associated with it. The US does one in 5 months, and just celebrated the other way yesterday.

            You can argue about the merits of a distributed verifiable transaction ledger all you want. That’s a separate thing. But to claim that puts any bounds on an entity to which you have *literally* given the power of life and death? Yeah. Scam.

          3. Pat:
            No. I do not automatically agree to any rules the shitheads make. Never have. Not a GD law abider.

            The next time governments ruin their currencies (soon enough, ship has already sailed) crypto will be there as an alternative.
            DC/London/Brussels won’t have anything to say about it. People will just start using government money as TP and trading in crypto. Ignoring any laws to the contrary.

            Maybe not Germany, they are rules crazy.
            Swiss too, they might not even wreck their currency. They didn’t agree to let the Italians/Greeks/Spanish have printing presses.

            Same as all the banana republics that have had their currencies fall into irrelevance. Eventually the US$ and Euro will be as irrelevant as Argentinian/Ecuadorian/Turkish currency.

            The politicians can whinge. Nobody cares. They’ll be lucky to collect sales tax. Will be great.

          4. “No. I do not automatically agree to any rules the shitheads make. Never have. Not a GD law abider.”

            You don’t get to choose that. It’s automatic.

          5. Your just a sheep/Swiss Pat.

            Everybody gets to choose which rules they follow.

            Except the Swiss.
            That’s just their collective national insanity.

          6. The problem with crypto is that it requires energy to exist. It’s a coal fired dollar bill that ends up being just as insecure as anything else if you want to actually pay for stuff with it.

    1. That’s better than what former Australian prime minister Turnbull thinks: “The laws of mathematics are very commendable, but the only law that applies in Australia is the law of Australia”

  2. Some years ago I discovered a web site which catalogued such things: https://dsimanek.vialattea.net/museum/unwork.htm

    The reason for the search which found it was an article in The Dallas Morning News about a local inventor. He had this design for a car with novel features. Such as using a pump to push water over a water wheel. Which drove a generator which produced power for the car. And the pump.

    Delivered as straight news with no hint of scepticism.

        1. What do you think ‘Inventor Support’ services are?

          I saved an English major from one of them, when he imagined himself an engineer for a second. He eventually understood that they were just vanity publishers.

          They seem to be setting about 20k$US fees for one ‘invention’ worth of support. But grifters, so that’s only start.
          Even if it’s something the sucker saw in Europe and thinks he can patient in the USA and get rich (specific case I dealt with). He told them his ‘invention’ was something he saw in Germany. They didn’t blink, just wanted a check to get started.

  3. When I was 10 years old, I received a “Philips Mechanical Engineer” toy set for Christmas and I quickly started investigating with the included electric motor, which could also be used as a dynamo. Then I asked my father if we used two motors connected by a shaft, the “dynamo” serving to electrically power the “motor”…

    He started with a good laugh, followed by some explanations about “perpetual motion doesn’t exist, but it’s perpetually funny!” as well as basic knowledge of physics and thermodynamics.

    That said, I unfortunately know some people who “think” that this is possible even if “we still haven’t found a truly effective solution”, but this lack of results is mainly due to the “big energy companies who are plotting to maintain their monopolies”.
    These are the same people who sometimes talk to me about the Coriolis force which acts on the draining of sinks and also chemtrails to control our thoughts…

    1. When I was knee-high to a grasshopper, I had a pair of magnets and I noticed how if I held them close and turned one, the other one would always try to line itself up exactly. Not knowing any better, I figured that meant it was their directions that were linked, not the balance of forces. So I figured that if I had a third magnet, I could make the first two turn each other – but the third one ought to turn too if it was nearby, and how did that work? I’m pretty sure I knew it wasn’t supposed to work, but since I didn’t get an explanation I had to figure out why not on my own. And of course I didn’t have three hands to feel it out, and magnets are magic especially to a little kid with no internet searches or relevant books, so it was probably a few days before I ended up figuring it out.

      Can’t really say why people get so far with some of these designs; many of them are grifts of course but some of them ought to sound foolish even to a layman. The conspiracy side makes a little sense; sometimes people like to think they understand something they aren’t satisfied with, and that for once they’re the special ones, the few with the wit to do something about it.

      1. “Can’t really say why people get so far with some of these designs”

        It’s because the first person these people fool is themselves. Honestly, a lot of times I *wish* these people were charlatans and frauds, because it’d be easier! People who are willing to lie to steal money for something that doesn’t work usually don’t stop with *one* crime, and *something* catches up to them.

        But a lot of these schemes are people just absolutely convinced they’ve found something people haven’t thought of, and in many ways that’s worse.

        1. Some of these schemes are generally about wanting views for ad money, even if they don’t ask for any from their viewers. Some “fuel-saving” or power saving gadgets act like they get energy from nothing, rather than claiming they capture wasted energy which seems like it’d be easier to get away with. But when it isn’t something like that, it’s a common fixation to try to skip past low hanging fruit to try and extract some gain from tiny yet difficult sources. Like if you wanted to try capturing wasted energy from an engine and rather than look at the heat in the exhaust or the coolant, you looked at trying to get it from vibrations by making piezoelectric engine mounts and gaskets or something. Maybe it’s just numeracy; the ideas that seem attractive are whichever you don’t remember anyone ever doing, since you don’t see any reason why.

    2. I think that every single reader of Hackaday had similar ideas around that age. It’s juat a part of learning curve, at some moment you know enough to have crazy ideas, but not enough to understand why they woudn’t work.

  4. There is a really promising technology in this field called “the crucible”. It extracts energy in the form of “argent” from , its not important where it’s from

  5. Referring to that adam savage video, my first question would be “when was it made?”. Using modern technology there are many ways that a lot of energy could be hidden in that box. Filing the frame with batteries for example. From there it would be fairly easy to use hidden coils and magnets to form a motor. With the only load being a smooth ball bearing a run time of 2 years seems rather easy to achieve.

    Power could be harvested from temperature cycling or light, but solar would be difficult to hide, and using heat would likely be complicated. Therefore batteries seem the most likely energy source.

    1. It’s in the post, it was made in the 80s, but it’s “serviced” every few years for “maintenance.”

      It should be noted that the device is essentially a puzzle box: it’s *intended* to fool you, so the obvious or likely solutions could easily be intentionally wrong.

    2. Seeing the Adam Savage video made me think that this “long running wheel” (I did not say perpetual) may be using static electricity. The wheel rotates through what appears to be magnets and the copper tube could be some sort of storage/conduit to the 2 little rods with knobs on them by the plastic hub that appears to have little “rivets”. I don’t know why but I thought of a sort of reverse Winhurst Static Electricity generator that is using attractive and repulsive forces to turn the hub. In the video there was a mention that it has to be taken and “serviced” occasionally which could be because the “static electricity” generating fades. One thing about machines like this is the misdirection that keeps you from seeing the simplest answer. Very much steampunk.

    3. There is the classic bike wheel with high thermal expansion coefficient spokes and a hot side.

      You could recognize it from behavior, the wheel would run backwards when the room temperature was below the daily average.
      Half the glass would have an IR coating.
      Whole thing could also be dumping heat to a cold base via wheel hub. That would help it keep up speed, rather than netting to zero over thermal cycles.

  6. Adam Savage said in the video that he was going to write up how he thought it worked – I would have expected him to build one by now but so far as my google fu he never did. Has anyone seen a followup?

    I would probably put batteries in the big boxes on the wheels and assuming the two dark U shaped things on the edges of the horizontal center are magnets I’d trip a coil at the calculated angle to add just a bit of push every time it went by. With Mercury switches I don’t think you’d need any active components.

    1. We* already use it as a money source, that’s not that bad !

      (*) as in social networks, human beliefs groups, A***e Inc and so on, the list is endless, obviously ;)

  7. I thought about magnets, too … much later I learned that rot grad f(x) = 0, so that’s that.

    Besides the magnets I thought about a cycle compressing air, then using the heat on the hot end of a Carnot cycle, then expanding by a turbine, and using the cooling effect of that expansion on the cold side of the Carnot cycle. I knew something must be wrong or missing, but couldn’t spot it.
    Later I learned about integrals and realized, that the energy gained by the Carnot cycle is exactly the energy lost to the turbine due to volume reduction because of the extracted heat. This is true for both the Carnot cycle “slices” put between hot-in/cold-out&hot-out/cold-in and hot-in/cold-in&hot-out/cold-out.

  8. >It was probably an overbalanced wheel where the wheel spins due to weight and gravity with enough force to keep the wheel spinning.

    Wouldn’t that make it a perpetual motion machine, then;). I mean, if it just takes weight and spinning?

  9. grandfather clocks that never need wound and do not require power…


    Still not quite there, they use a diaphragm that expands and contracts with the changes in air pressure to wind the clock. That’s the closest example of ‘perpetual motion’ that I can think of to date.

  10. My own favourite perpetual motion machines are John Ernst Worrell Keely’s Etheric Force Motor:
    which turned out to have been powered by compressed air, and Charles E Tripler, who had a “liquid air engine” which he used to drive a compressor that produced “liquid air” (probably liquid nitrogen?) at three times the rate the engine used it, thus providing power for free from ambient heat:

  11. 3412.14… BTU = 1 kWh, we read.

    Is it possible to generate 1 kWh of electricity with less than 3412 BTU?

    Do Wind and solar electricity generation do this?

    What is the heat rate for wind and solar electricity generation?

  12. Dang… That Egg of Columbus video sent me spinning down a deep rabbit hole. The device he uses is a crummy, very overpriced one available from the usual sources, so I tried finding details needed to construct a better version. Found a couple of heavy research papers that I’m not sure I have the patience to decipher. But, also found an assembly video (essentially an ad) for the one shown that can be used to duplicate the circuit and provide a starting point for recreating the stator (toroidal core & windings). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UqgaOB1At9M

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