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.
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.
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