There are three futile scientific obsessions that have always fascinated me: (1) Alchemy, (2) Free Energy and (3) Perpetual Motion. My fascination comes with a huge sense of relief because if I was born in a different time I may have been one of the individuals that die chasing these futile pursuits.

Anyway, here’s an awesome summary of the perpetual futility of perpetual motion devices, written by Donald E. Simanek:

Popular histories too often present perpetual motion machines as “freaks and curiosities” of engineering without telling us just how they were understood at the time. They also fail to inform us that even in the earliest history of science and engineering, many persons were able to see the futility and folly of attempts to achieve perpetual motion.

Sometimes a particular device comes to us with a label, such as “Bishop Wilkins’ magnetic perpetual motion machine.” Popular articles leave the impression that the inventor believed it was a perpetual motion machine. In fact, very often the device was presented and described to illustrate the futility of the quest for perpetual motion.

Bhaskara Wheel.
GIF by Hans-Peter Gramatke
Bhaskara Wheel
with curved spokes.

The first documented perpetual motion machines were described by the Indian author Bhaskara (c. 1159). One was a wheel with containers of mercury around its rim. As the wheel turned, the mercury was supposed to move within the containers in such a way that the wheel would always be heavier on one side of the axle. Perhaps this was not so much a practical proposal as an illustration of Indian cyclical philosophy. The idea reappears in Arabic writings, one of which contained six perpetual motion devices. From the Islamic world the idea reached Europe.

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