In the mid-1600s, magnetism and lodestones (naturally occurring magnets) were mysterious and inexplicable, and some scientist thought they could be used to make perpetual motion machines. Johannes Taisnierus came up with one. It consisted of two tilted ramps, an iron ball, and a lodestone. The lodestone (A) at the top pulled the ball (E) up the straight ramp. When it got close, the ball fell through a hole onto the lower, curved ramp where it rolled down and out a hole (F), back onto the first ramp where it then repeated the process over and over. Many scientists and engineers tried to build a working model, but they never worked. One such person, Bishop John Wilkins, observed that ball would not likely fall through the hole and would instead “ascend to the stone.” But he rationalized that magnetism was a newly studied phenomenon and that, in the future, a perpetual motion machine may be built using magnets.
The Perpetual Pump
An Italian scientist developed a device that was supposed to pump water up from a body of water through a leather pipe (A) and then let the water flow down over a water wheel. The turning wheel was then geared to run the pump (D) and keep the water wheel spinning. Even da Vinci thought this was a good idea, but then scientists of that day understood little about water and hydraulics. Hapless inventors are still trying (and sometimes succeeding) in patenting similar schemes.
Perpetual Motion…Until the Batteries go Dead
In the early 1800s, few people understood batteries. The crude ones of the day, called Volta piles, consisted of alternating layers of metal foil and paper. One Italian physicist who was also something of a craftsman, the Abbot Zamboni, fashioned some piles consisting of 2,000 meticulously cut and mounted layers. The relatively high-voltage devices measured only 12 in. tall. The abbot constructed a machine with two piles and a well-balanced pendulum in between them. The electrostatic charge on the piles’ terminals alternately attracted the pendulum and made it swing back and forth. (A similar mechanism was used in the first electrostatic clocks.)
It’s said that some of these machines had their pendulums moving back and forth for more than 100 years, earning them a short-lived time atop the list of perpetual motion machines. Then the batteries went dead.
The Unbalanced Chain
The weight of the chain on the right side of the upper pulley was longer and therefore heavier than that on the left. The difference in weight was supposed to ensure that the chain “fell” down the right side, turning the pulleys, and being pulled up the left side. The idea really didn’t pass the force-and-torque-analysis test.
Harnessing the Siphon
This device appeared in a 1699 book on pneumatics written (in Latin) by George Sinclair, a professor at Glasgow University. It used an upper bulb with pressure inside less than air pressure to suck water up from a dish and into itself. A siphon (the tube with the bend in in it) took water out of the bulb and sent it back into the dish. It didn’t work, despite the 18 pages Sinclair took to explain how it did work.
Those Unbalanced Wheels, Part 1
Unbalanced wheels with shifting centers of gravity have long been popular with those seeking perpetual motion. They even had a name: Baskara’s Wheel. This one, one of the oldest designs for perpetual motion, relied on evenly spaced vials filled with water, sand, or mercury. The liquid inside would shift as the wheel turned, overbalancing the wheel so that it turned forever clockwise. It didn’t.
Those Unbalanced Wheels, Part 2
Consider this version of the Baskara wheel, which is attributed to Jacob Leupold (1674-1727). However, Leupold knew very well that it wasn't perpetual motion and was, perhaps, having a joke. If you look at the wheel, you can quickly see that if all the arms were extended, the center of gravity would be below the wheel's axle. And, since some of the weights would be flopped over in “operation,” the center of gravity would be lower still, so it would not spin.
Squeezing Power Out of Sponges
In 1827, Sir William Congreve, a politician and inventor of a widely used military rocket, a color printing process, and a new steam engine design (among other things), devised a variant on the classic inclined-plane-and-chain perpetual motion machine. It consisted of three guide rollers and a chain of sponges. Sponges on the left side were heavier because they were soaked with water by capillary effects, thus causing an unbalanced force downward and making the chain move counter-clockwise. The sponges on the right side were pulled up the incline where the black weights could act on them to squeeze out the water, making them lighter and contributing to the unbalanced wheel.
The Tireless Bucket Brigade
This machine was first patented in 1857, and another variant was patented in 1976, indicating a patent examiner was asleep at the wheel. The Patent Office should not have granted a patent to something already patented.
In this device, another version of the unbalanced wheel, but one that works underwater, a chain of small cylinders, each with a piston inside, travelled clockwise around the pulleys. When a bucket went over the top, the piston fell down. This pushed the air out of the upper cylinder and through a hose to the cylinder coming around the bottom. Losing air made the upper cylinder heavier, while pumping air into the lower cylinder made it lighter. So with all the lighter cylinders on the left and the heavier ones on the right, the chain had to turn clockwise about the pulleys, right? Needless to say, it didn’t.