|mystical - strange events - orffyreus|
The Encyclopedia Britannica describes perpetual motion as "the action of a device that, once set in motion, would continue in motion forever, with no additional energy required to maintain it." Such devices are impossible on grounds stated by the first and second laws of thermodynamics. Or are they?
Perpetual motion, although seemingly impossible to produce, has fascinated both inventors and the general public for hundreds of years. The enormous appeal of perpetual motion resides in the promise of a virtually free and limitless source of power. The fact that perpetual-motion machines cannot work because they violate the laws of thermodynamics has not discouraged inventors and hucksters from attempting to break, circumvent, or ignore those laws. Did Orffyreus succeed in this endeavor?
Orffyreus, whose real name was Johann Ernst Elias Bessler (see sidebar explanation), was born in Zittav, Saxony in 1680. At the age of 32, Orffyreus proclaimed he had solved the enigma of perpetual motion and thus begins our perplexing tale of mystique.
The first record we find of Orffyreus's invention can be found in the Leipzig Acta Eruditorum (1717). From this work we know that Orffyreus demonstrated a self-moving wheel in the town of Gera. The wheel, measuring 3 feet in diameter and 4 inches thick, could be started with a slight push and would quickly pick up speed. The wheel was able to lift up a 7 pound weight hanging by a rope wrapped around the wheel's axle. Orffyreus, who was not a very personable man (he was run out of several towns) was dismayed at the people's lack of interest - so he built a better wheel.
In 1713 at the town of Drashwitz he demonstrated a wheel 5 feet in diameter and 6 inches wide that turned at 50 RPM and lifted a 40 pound weight. Slowly, news of Orffyreus's invention began to spread across the country.
In 1716, Count Karl from the state of Hesse-Cassel, heard of the mystical Orffyreus and brought him to town. He quickly made Orffyreus the town councilor and allowed him to live in the castle of Weissenstein where Orffyreus could continue his work.
While in Hesse-Cassel, Orffyreus utilized the space of a garden shed to build a 12 foot wheel that was 14 inches thick. Built in the highest of secrecy, the innards were covered by a oiled cloth so that only the axle were prone to view. This wheel was put on public display for several months. The suspicious Orffyreus utilized a guard supplied by the Count Karl (in fact, Orffyreus was so afraid of someone stealing his invention that he even hired a guard to watch over the guard supplied by Count Karl). The wheel was examined by hundreds of people who verified that the wheel indeed had on external power source. But, some still doubted Orffyreus's honesty.
It was rumored that Orffyreus had once been a watchmaker, a suggestion that may have indeed been true since it is well known that he had previously held several different occupations. Other clockmakers came forward and proclaimed that had succeeded in duplicating the device using basic 'timing' mechanisms used in clocks. But, there no records of any other such devices being built.
One famous mathematician of the day, Claus Wagner, refused to even view the wheel. He calculated that it was impossible and against all laws of physics so there was no point in even considering the possibility.
Orffyreus published a vague paper in 1719 titled The Triumphant Orffyrean Perpetual Motion. In his brief descriptions, Orffyreus said the wheel depends upon weights that "constitute the perpetual motion itself, since from them is received the universal movement which they must exercise so long as they remain out of the centre of gravity". Weights are put in a position so they can 'never obtain equilibrium'. Some sketches in the book demonstrated the intricate pattern of weights and balances, a feature that was probably used in the construction of Orffyreus's wheel (witnesses described hearing weights shifting while the wheel turned).
Is such a contraption possible? Marquis of Worcester first described the 'overbalancing wheel' (presumable before Orffyreus created his invention). He described a wheel with 2 rims, one inside the other. Weights attached by strings in such a manner that weights coming down shift to the outer rim while weights moving upward shift to the inside rim (where they are 'lighter').
On 10/13/1717, the wheel was moved to a large room in the castle. On 11/12/1717, officials examined the wheel in motion and the doors of the room were sealed tightly shut. Two weeks later the room was opened - the wheel was still spinning. To eliminate any remaining doubt, the room was sealed again and reopened on 01/04/1718 where it was still spinning at it's initial 25 RPM. Frank Edwards, in a 1956 article about the event (Bessler's Wonderful Wheel), described the event:
One of the witnesses, a Professor Gravesande, wrote to Sir Issac Newton (who had once stated "The seekers after perpetual motion are trying to get something from nothing.") about what he saw. He stated, "... hollow wheel, a kind of drum, covered over with canvas to prevent the inside from being seen. I have examined the axles and am firmly persuaded that nothing from without the wheel in the least contributes to its motion". Apparently Gravesande was convinced that the wheel was the genuine article.
But this public exhibition left out one very important detail - nobody was allowed to view the inner workings of the wheel. In fact, only one person besides Orffyreus was ever allowed to view the insides of the wheel - Count Karl himself. Count Karl was regarded as one of the top scientists of his day. Exactly how it came to be that the Count was allowed to view the wheel is unknown but it is generally believed that Count Karl offered to back Orffyreus financially (and allow him to work on the creation in his castle) on one condition - that he was allowed to view the inner workings of the machine. The condition that Orffyreus imposed on Count Karl of course, was that he could not disclose what he saw. The Count vaguely described a intricate system of weights and strings:
"When the oiled cloth was stripped away, said Count Karl, he found himself gazing upon a very simple arrangement of weights and levers. Orffyreus explained that he had conceived a system whereby the weights one side of the wheel were farther from the axle than the weights on the other side of the wheel, creating an imbalance which caused the wheel to move. The secret, if there was a secret, lay in the ingenious manner in which the weights on the ascending side of the wheel were prevented from following their normal path next to the rim. Count Karl said that these weights were blocked by small pegs which swung back out of the way as the weight passed the zenith."
Count Karl often remarked that the machine was so simple he was surprised that no one had discovered the secret before.
Now convinced that the dilemma of perpetual motion may have indeed
been solved, officials attempted to purchase the wheel from
Orffyreus. When asked how much Orffyreus would take for such a
revolutionary device, he replied '20,000 pounds'. This was a huge
amount for those days but officials and the Royal Society of London
attempted to raise the money believing that such a device would
revolutionize the process of energy production. The deal was ready
to conclude when one of the officials, Gravensande, was caught secretly
attempting to examine the wheel. This angered Orffyreus who considered
this act as doubt of his integrity. He promptly smashed the fragile wheel
In 1745, Bessler was commissioned to create a large windmill project in Furstenburg. While working on the upper level of the mill, Bessler slipped and fell to his death - died on November 30, 1745 at the age of 65. Bessler continued building perpetual motion wheels during the remaining years of his life but his secret, if there indeed was one, died with him.
(1) Frank Edwards, "Bessler's
Wonderful Wheel", 1956