No. 483
Crime, Eccentricity, and the Sporting Life in 19th Century America.
August 11, 2020

Perpetual Motion!

The devious dream of machines that power themselves.
September 5, 2011

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Perpetual Motion!

Redheffer Machine

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1812 - The Redheffer machine.[more]

The dream of perpetual motion—of a machine that powers itself—has been with us for as long as there have been machines. It almost seemed inevitable: if a machine can be used to raise a weight, and a falling weight can drive a machine, why not put the two together for a machine that drives itself? Many people tried it; attaching falling weights to wheels, or waterwheels to pumps, using siphons, magnets, inclines, and pulleys. In nineteenth-century America, when everything seemed possible, and backyard inventors were working coast-to-coast, it felt as though someone would get that wheel spinning.

But another group was also working on perpetual motion machines—con men.  They built elaborate machines that appeared to run themselves and went out in search of investors. To a public ready to believe and anxious to be part of the mechanical revolution, it was not a tough sell.

Charles Redheffer

In 1812, Charles Redheffer had set up a shop outside of Philadelphia and was charging people a fee to view his perpetual motion machine. It appeared to be a gravity-driven pendulum device that was turning a vertical shaft, without using any external power source. Redheffer was generating publicity through the Philadelphia Gazette and offered a large prize to anyone who could prove the machine was not legitimate.


When his machine was at its height of popularity, he petitioned the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for funds to help develop the device, which would clearly benefit the public. Pennsylvania sent some engineers to look at the machine but Redheffer forced them to view it through a barred window. Even at a distance, an astute engineer noticed that the gears of the machine were worn in the wrong direction. The machine was not driving the shaft; the shaft was driving the machine.

The engineer then built his own machine, based on Redheffer’s design, in which hidden clockwork drove a dummy machine. He invited Redheffer to a showing.  Redheffer saw that his secret was out and offered to buy the machine. When the engineer refused to sell, Redheffer fled Philadelphia for New York.

Redheffer tried the same trick in New York. Robert Fulton, inventor of the steamboat, came to a demonstration, and he noticed that the motion of the machine was not steady.  While a crowd looked on, Fulton revealed that the machine was driven by a hidden belt, which he traced to the room above where an old man was turning a crank.

John Worrell Keely


Also from Philadelphia, John Worrell Keely in 1873 was demonstrating a perpetual motion device he called a hydro-pneumatic-pulsating-vacu-engine. Keely was an energetic salesman and before long the Keely Moter Company had capital in excess of $5,000,000. However, by 1886 he had still not brought a product to market.


When his business was on the verge of collapse, he caught the attention of a wealthy widow, Clara J. Moore. She saw a demonstration of Keely’s machine and, convinced he was on to something, bankrolled his operation. She pulled the plug in 1896, when Keely refused to demonstrate his device for Professor L. Lascalles Scott, an English physicist.

Keely died in 1898. Upon his death, Scott investigated Keely’s house and found evidence that all of his experiments and demonstrations had been faked. On January 29, 1899, the New York Journal ran the headline, “Keely, the Monumental Fraud of the Century!”

J. M. Aldridge

In the 1890s, in Bradford, another Pennsylvania town, J. M. Aldridge was selling interest in a perpetual motion machine.  It is assumed that Mr. Aldridge’s machine began as a sincere attempt at creating perpetual motion.  The machine consisted of falling weights attached to a wheel; each falling weight would add enough power to bring the next weight into position to fall. The device even included a rubber band loaded brake to prevent the wheel from spinning too fast. However, the machine would never need a break because, as designed, it could never overcome friction.


Undeterred by failure, Aldridge secretly inserted clockwork in the base of the machine which drove the machine and gave the impression of perpetual motion. Aldridge began selling shares in the miraculous machine to enthusiastic investors. But a “too liberal discrepancy between the promise and performance of the ‘motor,’ led to the arrest of Mr. Aldridge.” Aldridge spent three or four months in jail, but there was not sufficient evidence to convict him of fraud.

After being released from jail, he continued selling shares in his machine. Aldridge prospered on these investments for another two years, until one suspicious investor got hold of a model and sent it to the U. S. Patent office. They revealed the secret of Aldridge’s machine—a concealed spring.  This ended J. M. Aldridge’s contributions to science.




Perpetual Motion Machine of Charles Redheffer


Keely, the Monumental Fraud of the Century!

Typical Perpetual Motion Fraud