The Myth of the Perpetual Motion Machine

A diagram showing Redheffer's machine.

A diagram showing Redheffer’s machine.

History is rife with intriguing stories of conmen and their ploys. The pathetic, but interesting, story of Charles Redheffer is a testament to the fact that smart men will always expose the dumb man (especially when they are as arrogant as Charles Redheffer).

In 1812, Mr. Redheffer arrived in Philadelphia claiming that he had invented a “perpetual motion machine.” He claimed that it required no energy to run. Quickly Redheffer became something of a celebrity in Philadelphia, where he charged the locals a fee to witness his fantastical machine at work.

Redheffer’s downfall in Philadelphia began after he brazenly asked the city to help fund a larger version of the machine. City officials arrived to inspect the machine, but were only allowed to view “through a barred window, as Redheffer was concerned anyone going near the machine might damage it” or, you know, they might discover his fraudulent claims. One of the inspectors’ sons was skeptical of Redheffer’s machine and “noticed that the gears of the perpetual motion machine were worn in the wrong direction if it was really powering the other device. Instead, it was clear that power was being routed to the perpetual motion machine from the other machine.”

Not everyone was convinced that it was a fake however, and civil engineer, Charles Gobort, bet a large sum of money that the machine was genuine in the Philadelphia Gazette. None of my sources mention whether Gobort was ever approached about keeping his bet.

Robert Fulton from which got it from Duyckinick, Evert A. Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and Women in Europe and America. New York: Johnson, Wilson & Company, 1873.

Robert Fulton from Duyckinick, Evert A. Portrait Gallery of Eminent Men and Women in Europe and America. New York: Johnson, Wilson & Company, 1873.

The inspector hired engineer Isaiah Lukens to reconstruct the perpetual motion machine and confront Redheffer with it. They came up with their own machine that was run by a hidden clockwork mechanism. They then displayed the machine to Redheffer. “Redheffer took the bait, the hook, the line, and the sinker. He was so astonished that he cornered the fellow and offered to buy the secret for a huge sum.”

Ah, but the story of the Perpetual Motion Machine is not over yet. After his exposure, Redheffer fled Philadelphia to New York, where he again set up his sham contraption. This time, however, he changed the source of power thinking it would be undetectable.

Redheffer was again exposed by an engineer: Robert Fulton. Fulton, being a mechanical engineer, was intrigued by Redheffer’s machine and paid him a visit. “Fulton noticed that the machine was wobbling slightly, and he deduced from this observation that the machine was being supplied its power by a hidden hand-crank.” Fulton noted that the machine did not move as a machine should.

To make things more interesting for the crowd that had formed, Fulton decided to challenge Redheffer. Fulton explained that he believed he knew how the machine was powered, and that if he was wrong, he would pay Redheffer for any damages he may cause. In an act of hubris, Redheffer stupidly agreed.

Well, I’m sure you can guess what happens next. Fulton ripped away the wall behind the machine and exposed a long catgut cord. Fulton then discovered “an old man [upstairs] who was turning a hand-crank with one hand and eating bread with the other.” The angry audience swiftly destroyed the machine and Redheffer fled once again.


Redheffer’s Perpetual Motion Machine, 1812,” The Museum of Hoaxes.

No. 438: REDHEFFER’S PMM-I,” by John H. Lienhard, The Engines of Our Ingenuity.

Charles Redheffer,” Wikipedia.

12 Comments on "The Myth of the Perpetual Motion Machine"

  1. Simon Valentine | Jul 22, 2014 at 3:50 pm |

    the moral of the story is

    you’re not tearing down government fast enough

    …or was it that you’re the old man?

    • Echar Lailoken | Jul 22, 2014 at 4:52 pm |

      One can hope! Or is it 0 = hope?

      • Simon Valentine | Jul 22, 2014 at 7:06 pm |

        you truly can talk to me 🙂

        Event Horizon like it’s 1999
        singularity abscess card heart colored valentine
        slipstream River dream protocol activation
        “it’s not what it is so much as it’s evaluation”
        but not in their way
        oh no no no
        they’re just some demons
        that my kind can sow
        Maxhgwell aint got shit on this

        • Echar Lailoken | Jul 22, 2014 at 7:43 pm |

          True, the secret isn’t so secret and about as earthly practical as a wrinkled watch.

          • Simon Valentine | Jul 22, 2014 at 11:17 pm |

            i do believe the complex conjugaterror here is
            “oh look it’s skin o’clock Spock”

          • Echar Lailoken | Jul 22, 2014 at 11:27 pm |

            A moebius strip of Meaningful lack of substance and meaningless substance wrapped around a spiraling core of mandelbrot meaningful substance and insubstantial lack of meaning.

            The universe and it’s absense?

          • Simon Valentine | Jul 23, 2014 at 11:35 am |

            ye’old “just because the universe is so complete as to include the absence of its inclusion of its own absence doesn’t mean we have to do the same”

  2. Anarchy Pony | Jul 22, 2014 at 5:40 pm |

    I don’t know which group is more cranky, the perpetual motion people or the cold fusion people. Youtube is friggin’ crawling with both.

    • gabydewilde | Jul 23, 2014 at 2:20 am |

      And then it turned out the whole universe is moving! Every molecule is spinning and shaking! Before I can build you a perpetual motion machine first give me something that doesn’t move. Build me one of those imaginary closed systems along with it. You must have missed a science lesson, give or take a few hundred years.

      The alchemist referred to the perpetual motion as the elements (nature) in constant motion. The perpetual motion device could refer to a windmill or a water wheel. It wasn’t until recently that the definition was changed into something that contradicts it self and doesn’t allow for any sort of universe.


      But the cold fusion…. What happens if we discard all the typewriter scientists and those to incompetent to make a working replication? Then what you have left is many hundreds of scientists with formidable credentials who did build a working cell. Lets not take your word or mine for it when we have our best minds doing exactly what you claim not to exist.

      It shows how far the debunker psychosis really goes.

      It shows us what is required from the free energy inventor to prove his invention to the debunker. The debunker will continue crying hoax even if an army of scientists says it is all real.

      It didn’t cost you a cent.

      Surely you want to argue we should spend some more billions on hot fusion. That will become something that works any moment now!!

      Orwellian double think much?

  3. kowalityjesus | Jul 22, 2014 at 7:56 pm |

    I’m a physicist and I approve of this message.

  4. tibby trillz | Jul 22, 2014 at 8:13 pm |

    funny to scroll down and see “controversial skinny pill sweeps the nation” ad.

  5. Charles Saeger | Jul 24, 2014 at 8:34 pm |

    Someone should have informed Ayn Rand.

Comments are closed.