The Wheel of Orffyreus 1

Yet another chapter from this fascinating forgotten work Oddities: A Book of Unexplained Facts (Allan, London 1928) by R.T. Gould. Gould was a polymath who appears to have tolerated fools and cranks gladly...however Johann Bessler was no fool (although he may have been insane) and no less a figure than the philosopher Leibniz and  and the scientist and Newtonian Willem Jacob 's Gravesande thought he had the secret of perpetual motion. Gould gets to the heart of the matter -as always with footnotes blazing...this is the first part:-


The history of human folly, on any scale commensurate with the vast and "ever-increasing amount of material available, remains to be written. A casual effort in this direction was made by Sebastian Brant, who published his Ship of Fools* in 1494. But while this book may have inspired Erasmus to take up the cudgels "for self and fellows", and produce his Praise of Folly,† its satire fell, for the most part, on deaf ears. Centuries later an atrabilious Scotsman, peering at the world from an anacoustic study in Chelsea, recorded his conviction that it was peopled by "too many millions, mostly fools”–a sweeping statement, but embodying an essential truth. Most of those, for example, who have had experience (internal or otherwise) of Government Departments can testify to having, like Oxenstiern, been amazed at discovering how little wisdom it takes to govern the world; and if there be any truth in the often-quoted assertion that "a nation gets the government it deserves”, Carlyle's apothegm must be regarded as resting upon a very solid–one might even say dense–basis of fact.

* Das Narrenshiff.

Encomium Moria. The title is a joke at the expense of his friend Sir Thomas More.


Of the many millions of fools who cumber the earth, I suppose that the fanatics, taking them all round, are the greatest nuisance–and tested by old-fashioned notions of personal independence and "the liberty of the subject", the one most actively mischievous. Possessing, far too often, that misleading form of energy which it is fatally easy to mistake for capacity; restrained by no false modesty from minding everybody else's business; and simultaneously unbalanced and supported by a chronic inability to conceive that there can be two sides to any question, they are the bacteria of the civilized world–a fertile source of past, present, and future disorders.

But if the fanatic, generally speaking, is an unpleasant figure, the harmless "crank" can be very amusing–provided that you merely chuckle over his lucubrations, and sternly refuse to be drawn into correspondence with him. The latter caution is a sine qua non. He can never be converted from his mistaken notions, for the serene ignorance which gave them birth forms, also, a mental armour proof against the clearest demonstration. In addition, he is generally of irritable temperament; he has much spare time; he is blind to the decencies of ordinary controversy; and he wields a vitriolic, if halting, pen.

Such is the flat-earther, the circle-squarer, the Ten Tribes man, the far superior to Buatier da Kolta or J. N. Maskelyne, for he certainly produced what was, judged by the standards of his day, a most consummate deception.

Here are the facts of the story, so far as they are upon record.

Johann Ernest Elias Bessler, called Orffyreus, was born at Zittau, Saxony, in 1680. "Orffyreus" seems to be an assumed name* which he adopted as a means of self-advertisement, precisely as a more famous countryman of his, afflicted from birth with the remarkable style of Philip Theophrastus Bombastus yon Hohenheim, had done long before.
P. T. B. yon Hohenheim, even in its abbreviated form, is a name chiefly remarkable for its length–but there will always, I think, be some who have read of" Paracelsus".

* He arrived at it by writing the alphabet in a circle, and picking out the letters diametrically opposite to those of "Bessler”–thus obtaining "Orffyre" which he Latinised.

Orffyreus seems to have had a restless and inquiring mind–he studied theology, medicine, and painting before turning his attention to mechanics. About 1712 he began to be known as the constructor of various self-moving wheels. He exhibited these freely, but always with their mechanism concealed by casings forming part of the wheel and revolving with it.†

† The account here given of the various wheels is compiled from several sources, including the Leipzig Acts (Acta Eruditorum) for 1717, a German technical dictionary published in 1719-20, Orffyreus' own pamphlet, and Dirck's Perpetuum Mobile, second series (London, 1870).

He brought out the first of these at Gera, in the province of Reuss, in 1712. It was a wheel of about 3 feet diameter and 4 inches thick, capable not only of keeping itself in motion when started but of gradually working up its speed to a certain limit, and of raising a weight of several pounds. It should be noted, however, that the accounts of the work done by the first three of Orffyreus' wheels show that the tests applied to them were only "brake tests" of very short duration, during which the wheel lifted a weight by means of a rope coiled round its axle. The lifting effect was not exerted, apparently, for more than a minute or so, and was probably due, in great part, to the mere momentum of the wheel. As an apparent demonstration that the machines were self-moving, this was far less conclusive than their progressive acceleration when once set going.

Orffyreus seems to have derived no benefit, either in money or reputation, from the wheel which he exhibited at Gera. One suspects that the chief reason for this was to be found in his personal character. He seems to have been, intentionally or otherwise, one of the Old Masters of that "gentle art of making enemies" of which Whistler was so polished and caustic an exponent. At all events his admirers were few, and his detractors many. Some asserted that the machine was a bare-faced imposture; others that it was, at all events, a mere model, and that a larger machine of the same type could not answer.*

* It is a well-known fact that in many cases an accurate model of a proposed machine is successful in its working, and the machine itself a failure. The reason for this, broadly speaking, is that the weight of a machine increases as the cube of its size, and its structural strength as the square. For the same reason a tall man, coeteris paribus, is proportionately weaker than one of normal size.

Orffyreus–who, like Paracelsus, seems to have spent most of his life in a nomadic state, the remainder being passed in brief sojourns punctuated and terminated by controversies and recriminations–left Gera in dudgeon and went to Draschwitz, near Leipzig. Here, in 1713, he completed and exhibited a larger machine on the same lines. It was about 5 feet in diameter and 6 inches thick. It could reach a speed of fifty revolutions per minute and raise a weight of 40 lb.

Removing to Merseburg, he constructed a third and still larger machine. This was about 6 feet in diameter and 1 foot thick. He obtained certificates from several "learned men”–who, presumably, were at least competent to determine so simple a point that it was not moved by any "outward agent": i.e. that it was not connected with any external source of power. It may be noted that only one man, the Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel, was ever permitted to view the internal mechanism of any of Orffyreus' wheels.

As at Gera, Orffyreus found that the exhibition of his wheel made him merely a target for detraction and abuse–not only oral but printed. Apparently in the hope of silencing his enemies, he again submitted the machine, on October 31, 1715, to the examination of a committee of eminent men, who signed, on December 4th, a certificate stating that they considered it a true "perpetual motion . . . having the property to move right and left, easily moved, but requiring great effort to stay its movement; with the power of raising . . . a box of stones weighing 70 lb., 8 ells high perpendicularly . . . . " But this carried no weight with his opponents–nor did the fact that the machine, unaffected by the controversy, continued to revolve during the remainder of Orffyreus' stay in Merseburg.

His adversaries attacked him in various ways. For example, one C. Steinbruck, in 1716, published a satirical pamphlet in which he made Orffyreus an offer of one thousand thalers to demonstrate that his machine could really, as he had claimed, go for a month continuously, or raise a weight of 70 lb. C. Wagner, a Leipzig mathematician, also issued a pamphlet proving to his own satisfaction that Orffyreus' experiments were offences against the laws of nature and punishable as such. He also professed to be able to exhibit a machine, constructed of copper, which could perform all that was reported of the Merseburg wheel–while at the same time confessedly a trick, operated by concealed machinery. Another of the pack, Andreas Gartner, a Dresden model-maker, more modestly professed only that he, too, could construct a "perpetual-motion" machine. Yet another, J. G. Borlach, published a treatise (Leipzig, 1716) showing that perpetual motion was contrary to nature, and containing a plate indicating how, in his opinion, Orffyreus kept his wheel turning. The plate (which Orffyreus contemptuously reproduced in his own later pamphlet) shows the wheel revolving close to a wall, on the other side of which a tired-looking servant is hauling on the end of a rope made fast to a rocking-beam overhead. The other end of the beam is connected by a crank with the axle of the wheel. It is scarcely necessary to say that such a contrivance would not have deceived a child–much less the intelligentsia who had testified that Orffyreus' wheel, whatever its mechanism, was at least unconnected with any external source of power.

There is, however, one curious point to be noted in connection with Borlach's suggestion, absurd though that was. The arrangement of wheel, rocking-beam, and crank is identical with that employed in the "beam-engine”–the earliest form of steam rotary power–plant invented by James Watt. Watt's first engines were designed for pumping water, the pump being coupled direct to the beam–but in 1780 he designed a new engine in which he proposed to use a crank to transform the reciprocating motion of the beam into continuous rotary motion. At that date, the crank was in common use for such purposes as the treadle of a lathe–and, in consequence, Watt did not cover it by his patent. Much to his surprise, he found that gossip as to the details of the new engine had led to one James Pickard, a Birmingham button-maker, securing a patent for the use of the crank in steam-machinery. Pickard obtained this patent on August 23, 1780 about a month before Watt's engine was completed. The latter wast for some time, compelled to evade this patent by using a "sun-and-planet" motion instead of a crank–and it seems a pity that in the course of his wide reading he had not come across the pamphlets of either Borlach or Orffyreus, since he could have proved that a similar arrangement to that patented by Pickard had been designed and published sixty-five years earlier.

Either at the end of 1716 or early in the following year Orffyreus quitted Merseburg and settled at Hesse-Cassel, one of the small quasi-independent states endemic in eighteenth-century Germany. Here he attracted the notice of Karl, the reigning Landgrave (Count); or, to give him his full title as it appears in the Latin version of Orffyreus' pamphlet–

". . . Carolus, Hassiæ Landgravius, Princeps Hersfeldiæ, Comes Cattimeliboci, Deciæ, Ziegenhaynæ, Nidæ, Schaumburgi, &c.”

The Landgrave took the harassed and vagrant Orffyreus under his protection. A post was found for him as Town Councillor–an office apparently more important then than now–and rooms were set apart for his use in the Ducal castle of Weissenstein, near Cassel.

But although Orffyreus had put a considerable distance between himself and the scenes of his past exploits, and although he was, in a measure, protected from affront by the Landgrave's patronage, he could not, if he had wished to, shake off the reputation and the mystery attaching to his name. He may have pulled his weight as a Town Councillor, but there can be little doubt that he was chiefly regarded by the people of Cassel, and their ruler, as the possessor of a long-sought and valuable secret–that of perpetual motion. One imagines that he was looked upon by his patron somewhat as the Court alchemists of an earlier century were regarded by their hosts–and it is difficult to doubt that, before long, he was politely invited to give a specimen of his powers.

At all events, before 1717 was out he had constructed at the castle of Weissenstein his fourth, last, and largest wheel. Of this there exists an excellent description given by Professor's Grayesande, of Leyden, in a letter to Sir Isaac Newton (whom he knew intimately).

". . . The inventor has a turn for mechanics, but is far from being a profound mathematician, and yet his machine hath something in it prodigiously astonishing, even though it should be an imposition. The following is a description of the external parts of the machine, the inside of which the inventor will not permit to be seen, lest anyone should rob him of his secret.

"It is an hollow wheel, or kind of drum, about 14 inches thick and 12 feet diameter; being very light, as it consists of several cross pieces of wood framed together; the whole of which is covered over with canvas, to prevent the inside from being seen. Through the centre of this wheel or drum runs an axis of about 6 inches diameter, terminated at both ends by iron axes of about three-quarters of an inch diameter upon which the machine turns. I have examined these axes, and am firmly persuaded that nothing from without the wheel in the least contributes to its motion.* When I turned it but gently, it always stood still as soon as I took away my hand; but when I gave it any tolerable degree of velocity, I was always obliged to stop it again by force; for when I let it go, it acquired in two or three turns its greatest velocity, after which it revolved twenty-five or twenty-six times in a minute."

*The original is not italicized.

A similar account of the machine is to be found in a letter written by Baron Fischer (architect to the Emperor of Austria) to Dr. J. T. Desaguliers, F.R.S.

"I do myself the honour of writing the present letter to mark my esteem for you, and also to give you news of the Perpetual Motion at Cassel, which has been so much recommended to me since I have been in London. Although I am very incredulous about things which I do not understand, yet I must assure you that I am quite persuaded that there exists no reason why this machine should not have the name of Perpetual Motion given to it; and I have good reasons to believe that it is one, according to the experiments which I have been allowed to make by permission of His Serene Highness, who is the most amiable and gracious of princes that I have known in my life; and who had the patience to be present at the trials which I made during two hours.

"It is a wheel which is 12 feet in diameter, covered with oil-cloth.* At every turn of the wheel can be heard about eight weights, which fall gently on the side towards which the wheel turns. This wheel turns with astonishing rapidity, making twenty-six turns in a minute when moving freely. Having tied a cord to the axle, to turn an Archimedean screw for raising water, the wheel then made twenty turns in a minute. This I noted several times by my watch, and I always found the same regularity.

* Not the modern "linoleum", but thin cloth oiled or waxed to give it a smooth surface, like glazed calico.

"I then stopped the wheel with much difficulty, holding on to the circumference with both hands. An attempt to stop it suddenly would raise a man from the ground.

"Having stopped it in this manner, it remained stationary; and (here, Sir, is the greatest proof of it being a Perpetual Motion) I restarted it very gently, to see if it would of itself regain its former rapidity–which I doubted, believing, as they had said in London, that it only preserved for a long time the impetus of the impulse first communicated. But, to my great astonishment, I observed that the rapidity of the wheel augmented little by little until it had made two turns, and then it regained its former speed, until I observed by my watch that it made the same twenty-six turns a minute as before, when acting freely; and twenty turns when it was attached to the screw to raise water.

"This experiment, Sir, showing the speed of the wheel to augment, from the very slow movement that I gave it, to an extraordinary rapid one, convinces me more than if I had only seen the wheel moving a whole year, which would not have persuaded me that it was perpetual motion, because it might have diminished little by little until it ceased altogether; but to gain speed instead of losing it, and to increase that speed to a certain degree in spite of the resistance of the air and the friction of the axles, makes me unable to see how anyone can deny the truth of so describing it.

Orffyreus Wheel

Note.—This illustration is taken from a pamphlet published by Orffyreus in 1715, before the Weissenstein wheel was constructed. The plate of the latter given in his pamphlet of 1719 is very similar, but much more coarsely engraved.

"I also turned it in a contrary way, when the wheel performed as before. I carefully examined the axles of the wheel, to see if there was any hidden artifice; but I was unable to see anything more than the two small axles on which the wheel was suspended at its centre."

The wheel seems to have remained on exhibition at Weissenstein for several months, and to have been examined by many persons of standing, including (in addition to 's Gravesande, Fischer, and the Landgrave) Julius Bernhard of Rohr, Wolff Dietrich of Bohsen, Friedrich Hoffmann (a celebrated physician), Christian Wolff, F.R.S. (Chancellor of the University of Halle), and John Rowley, a well-known English maker of mathematical instruments.* All were satisfied that the wheel was no fraud; Rowley, in particular, seems to have made himself quite notorious, later, by the pertinacity with which he asserted, after his return to England, that he had seen a genuine "perpetual motion" at Cassel.

* He executed, in 1716, that copy of Graham's original planetary machine (1715) to which, at Steele's suggestion, the generic name of "Orrery" was given. It now belongs to Admiral of the Fleet the Earl of Cork and Orrery. I had the pleasure of cleaning and repairing it in 1937. See I.L.N., 18-XII-37.

The official test of the machine was performed in 1717-18. On October 31, 1717, Orffyreus was requested to transport the wheel from the room where it was installed to another (also in the castle of Weissenstein) "where there were no walls contiguous to it, and where one might go freely round it on every side". This he accordingly did.

On November 12th following, the Landgrave, with some of his officials, visited the wheel in its new situation and, after seeing it in free and rapid movement, caused the doors, windows, and all other conceivable means of access to the room to be closed, secured, and officially sealed.

On November 26th the seals were broken and the room opened. The wheel was found to be revolving as before. The room was reclosed and resealed with the same precaution.

On January 4, 1718, it was again opened. The seals were found intact.
The wheel was revolving with its accustomed regularity.

The Landgrave gave an official certificate of these facts to Orffyreus (dated May 27, 1718), which the latter published in his pamphlet of the following year. The certificate expressly states that the precautions taken were such as to exclude the faintest "hint or suspicion" that the machine could be an imposture.

The Landgrave seems to have acquiesced in Orffyreus' view that he had a right to keep the structure of his machine secret until he had derived some pecuniary benefit from it. But the inventor's efforts towards this end do not seem to have been prolonged or welt-judged, and they were certainly unsuccessful. His proposals, such as they were, are outlined in the concluding portion of Fischer's letter to Desaguliers. It will be noted that he looked to England as the nation most likely to reward him; possibly because our country had, in 1714, offered an official reward of £20,000 for a method of finding longitude at sea–and had, in consequence, become the target of every projector, crank, swindler, and lunatic in Europe and/or Bedlam.

(Fischer to Desaguliers.)
"I said to His Highness that I had no doubt a company might be formed in London to purchase the secret. The Prince would be exceedingly happy if such a company would consign into his or other hands £20,000 in favour of the Inventor–then the machine should be examined and the secret communicated. If the movement were found to be a perpetual one, the £20,000 would be given up to the inventor; and, if not, the money would be returned. This would be stipulated by proper legal documents.

"I told His Serene Highness that no one could institute such a company better than yourself, for you are always working for the instruction of the public. Consider under what obligation you would lay the most enlightened nation in Europe, if you procured for it the knowledge of the principle of this perpetual motion. . . .

"As I shall not long remain here, I must beg of you to correspond with Mr. Roman, Superintendent of Works to His Highness. He will show all your letters to the Prince, and will come to an understanding with you touching this matter, which well merits your highest consideration, as it is not well to leave this treasure buried. Will you also communicate with your friend Mr. Newton, and tell him my opinion of the machine? I hope that you will soon hear from our friend M. 's Gravesande, of Leyden, who is soon expected here by His Highness. . . ."

It is very doubtful whether Desaguliers took any steps to further this rather cool proposition. In any event Orffyreus soon afterwards put a stop, by his own act, to any such negotiations. In a fit of passion he destroyed his wonderful machine. He was, apparently, driven to this insane act by misapprehending's Gravesande's motives for the careful examination which that savant had made of the axle and bearings of the wheel–an examination which had been conducted with the sole object of establishing that it was not connected in any way with an external source of power. If Orffyreus had only waited a few hours (he smashed the wheel on the day following that examination) he would have learned from the written report which's Gravesande handed to the Landgrave, that the self-moving character of his machine was satisfactorily established. 's Gravesande tells the story himself, in a letter written in 1729 to one M.
Crousaz, a sceptic who had seen the machine when in working order.

"My Lord the Landgrave, in the presence (at my request) of the Baron Fischer, Architect of the Emperor, and other persons, showed the supports of the machine; we saw the axles uncovered; I examined the plates or brasses on which the axles rested, and, in that examination, there did not appear the slightest trace of communication with the adjoining room.* I remember very distinctly the whole of the circumstances of that examination which put Orffyreus in such a rage with me that, the day after, he broke his machine in pieces, and wrote on the wall that it was the impertinent curiosity of Professor's Gravesande which was the cause . . . . "

* My italics. The point is important, as will appear.

After this débâcle, the history of Orffyreus and his famous wheel becomes vague and shadowy. According to a letter from Roman to 's Gravesande, dated Cassel, May 18, 1727, Orffyreus was then engaged in rebuilding the machine. He hoped to have it ready within a month, and 's Gravesande would then be invited by the Landgrave to make a fresh examination of it. Whether this examination was to include the mechanism of the wheel does not appear–it is difficult to believe that's Gravesande would have consented merely to repeat his former scrutiny of the exterior. There is no further record of any trial or exhibition of the machine. Orffyreus died in November 1745.

It was not given to him to say, as Bacon truly and proudly said, “…For my name and memory, I leave it to men's charitable speeches, and to foreign nations, and to the next age". Generally regarded in his lifetime as an impostor, he met the same fate at posterity's hands• For example, that repository of accurate information, Chambers's Encyclopædia,† in its article "Perpetual Motion", remarks, after describing the tests of his wheel, “… We must, of course, assume the existence of some imposition in this…"

† Many years ago I read through both Chambers's Encyclopædia and The Encyclopædia Britannica. Candidly, I greatly prefer the former–not merely because it is shorter but because, in my opinion, it is planned on far sounder lines, and with a much better sense of proportion.

Long after his death, one man arose to defend his memory.• Unfortunately, that man's character and writings made him certain to do it more harm than good. He was one Dr. William Kenrick, originally a rule-maker, who took to literature and became a hack employed by Strahan, the London bookseller, for whom he edited The London Review from 1775 until his death in 1779. He is remembered now, if at all, only by Johnson's sarcastic reference to him: "Sir, he is one of the many who have made themselves public, without making themselves known".

Kenrick, who seems to have greatly resembled Orffyreus in his union of a turgid style with a quarrelsome disposition, published in 1770 a pamphlet entitled An Account of the Automaton constructed by Orffyreus, in which he gave a not very accurate account of his hero's life, mixed up with comments and absurdities of his own. In the same year he published A Lecture on the Perpetual Motion (which he professed to have discovered). He proposed to give, in this pamphlet, a clear demonstration that "perpetual motion" must be "the necessary consequence of the known and established laws of nature".

The pamphlet is practically unreadable, chiefly on account of its extraordinary style. He remarks, for example:

"I could almost as readily impute ingenuity to vegetables and fossils–to the sensitive plant and the loadstone–its meditation to muscles (sic), or cogita bundity to cockles, periwinkles, and rock oysters!"

In addition, it is verbose, dull, and stupid. He issued proposals for constructing, by subscription, a machine similar to that of Orffyreus, which he termed a "Rotator". These, naturally enough, met with no attention. He petitioned, on May 19, 1779, for a patent in connection with his machine, but died on June 13th following, "less lamented than he might have been, owing to his generally malignant and vituperative style of writing".

But the aberrations of fools like Kenrick, and knaves like the many detected impostors who, from time to time, have attempted to hoax the public with false "perpetual motions", should not be allowed to obscure the real issue. It is this. There exists a considerable and impressive body of testimony, subscribed by most competent witnesses, as to the self-moving character of Orffyreus' wheel at Weissenstein. If we reject this testimony, cadit quæstio–but we must then give up attempting to write history from contemporary documents. Yet, if we accept it, how is it to be explained?

In view of Orffyreus' reputation (whether merited or otherwise) it is natural to begin by supposing that the machine was a pure fraud. The arguments in favour of this view are summed up in a letter from de Crousaz to's Gravesande.

February 3, 1729.

"... Firstly, Orffyreus is mad.

"Secondly, it is impossible that a madman can have discovered what such a number of clever persons have searched for without success.

"Thirdly, I do not believe in impossibilities.

"Fourthly, we can easily imagine that persons keep a secret from which they are to receive benefit; but this fellow, hoping only to gain reputation, allows this to be tarnished by an accusation which he has it in his power to disprove, if false.

"Fifthly, the servant who ran away from his house, for fear of being strangled, has in her possession, in writing, the terrible oath that Orffyreus made her swear.

"Sixthly, he only had to have asked, in order to have had this girl imprisoned, until he had time to finish his machine.

"Seventhly, they publish that the machine is going to be exhibited, when suddenly those who advertise it become silent.

"Eighthly, it is true that there is a machine at his house, to which they give the name of perpetual motion; but that cannot be transported, it is much smaller, and it differs from the first, in that it only turns one way .... "

It is significant that's Gravesande, who certainly had no cause to love Orffyreus, and who had suffered much undeserved ridicule for having asserted his belief in the possibility of perpetual motion,* stuck to his guns in his reply.

* He explicitly asserted this belief in a work on Newton's Principia, which he published in 1720. He attempted to defend it by a demonstration, which he unfortunately based on the supposition that the kinetic energy of a body m moving with a speed v is proportional to mv (instead of ½mv²). He admitted this error in his second edition (1725).

"I have deferred replying to you, until I had found a paper which I wrote the day after I examined Orffyreus' machine; for although I remember well all that passed, I believe that a paper, written the day after the examination, and communicated to my Lord and all those who were with him, must have more weight.

"This is what I heard; they say, that a servant under oath, turned Orffyreus' machine, (she) being placed in an adjoining room.

"I know well that Orffyreus is mad; but I have no reason to think him an impostor; I have never decided whether his machine is an imposture or not; but this I know, as certainly as anything in the world, that if the servant says the above, she tells a great falsehood  . . . . "

's Gravesande's correspondence on the subject of Orffyreus' wheel with Newton and de Crousaz was printed in the collected edition of his scientific works.† His editor, Professor Allemand, made some very sensible comments on the foregoing.

Æuvres Philosophiques et Mathématiques de M. G. J. 's Gravesande, rassemblées et publiées par Jean Nic. Seb. Allemand (Amsterdam, 1774, 2 vols. 4to).

"Examining minutely the pros and cons, we can come to these conclusions. 1. That Orffyreus was evidently mad, as M. 's Gravesande and M. de Crousaz both affirm; his breaking his machinery at different times without either reason or necessity proves this. But his was a sort of madness we do not often see; a mania fixed only on certain objects, which merits more the name of fantasy or whimsy–this kind of mania is often accompanied by much genius, and when persons of this disposition apply themselves solely to one subject, as it appears he did, it is not surprising to find them making discoveries which have escaped the sagacity of wiser people.

"Thus I do not agree with M. de Crousaz, that it is incredible that a madman, such as Orffyreus, should have found out something that learned men have searched for unsuccessfully ....

"2. No exterior agent moved the machine; if it were a servant that moved it, would this not have been apparent to eyes so searching as those that made the examination, or to the Landgrave, who had seen the interior of the machine? Besides, how can one assume that a wheel of so great a volume could have been moved by such a cause, a cause which would act only on the axle crossing the supports, and which must have been so small as to have excaped the most rigorous examination?

"3. Supposing that the servant has not been bribed to depose against Orffyreus, what does her testimony prove? Only that her master made her believe that, by turning a little wheel, she moved the whole machine–and we can fancy a singular character such as he was might have done this to baffle the curiosity of those who sought to penetrate his secret . . .”

The theory that the machine was moved by external power provides, of course, a ready explanation of the mystery. Moreover, this plan is definitely known to have been used in at least one fraudulent "perpetual motion”–Redhoeffer's, exhibited (and exposed) at New York in 1813. At the instance of Robert Fulton, some of the onlookers demolished a few very thin struts running from the frame of the machine to the wall of the room. This exposed a thin catgut line, encircling the axle and led away, under the floor-boards, to a distant loft, in which sat an old man turning a crank!

If we assume that Orffyreus had a free hand to install his wheel at Weissenstein in circumstances of profound secrecy–and, also, that 's Gravesande's examination of its bearings was perfunctory–it then becomes quite conceivable that he adopted some plan of this kind, running his gut line up one of the wheel's supports, and so turning a built-in friction-wheel on whose rim the axle of the wheel rested. There would be quite enough friction between the two surfaces to transmit a torque adequate to keeping the wheel in motion, and even accelerating it, once it had been started by hand–as it always was. Orffyreus need not have employed a confederate–the power might have been derived from a falling weight, and "clutched in" (on the lines of the modern self-starter pinion) by a system of selective ratchets, so arranged that whichever way the wheel was set in motion, the weight would take up the drive.

And, as Plate III shows, there is a slightly suspicious feature about one of the wheel's supports–the one with a hole in it, through which a rope is led. Mechanically this plan is both unnecessary and objectionable: exactly the same end would have been better served by leaving the support unweakened, and taking the rope through a leading-block close to its foot. On the other hand, Orffyreus' plan might well serve to lull any suspicion that the support was pierced from top to bottom, and had a double line running through it. But against all this must be set two very weighty considerations. Orffyreus might easily have fitted up a deception of this kind in his own house–but to do this at Weissenstein would involve various architectural problems; and, both then and later, the gravest risk of detection. And, secondly, by ’s Gravesande's own account he fully satisfied himself that he had examined the actual "plates or brasses on which the axles rested". If he did, no concealed friction-wheel or other device could, one would think, possibly have escaped his scrutiny*–his competence, and his honesty, are beyond question–had he discovered the slightest indication of fraud he would at once have exposed it, for he had no conceivable motive for shielding Orffyreus–and, after all, he was there and we were not.

* All the same, I was once shown a bogus "perpetual motion" wheel (actually driven by concealed clockwork) which a competent watch-repairer took to pieces, cleaned and reassembled without discovering the fraud. This, however, was a wheel about one-twelfth the size of Orffyreus', and needed extremely little power to keep it moving.

If then we reject the theory that external power drove the wheel, we must conclude that its rotation was due to some source of power inside the wheel itself. What was that source?

The most obvious answer is that there was a man in it.† Either straddling the axis, or sitting on some form of saddle below this, he could easily have provided the power to rotate the wheel and to perform the comparatively light work (raising water by an Archimedean screw) expected of it at intervals. He could apply his weight either through some form of pedalling-gear or directly, as in a treadmill–and there would have been no difficulty in so designing this that he could rotate the wheel in either direction with equal ease.

† Philip Thicknesse, writing in 1785, gives a sarcastic account of a deception of this kind, exhibited in London:–

"The wheel was stated to be a pure mechanism: but a small paper of snuff put into the wheel soon convinced all round that it could not only move, but sneeze too, like a Christian."

Unfortunately, this solution creates more difficulties than it removes.
It is true that the dimensions of the Weissenstein wheel–12 feet in diameter and 15-18 inches thick–would allow of a man being housed in it, although he would have been scarcely more comfortable than were prisoners in the mediæval "Cells of Little Ease", whose dimensions were so cunningly planned that there was not room either to stand, sit, or lie. But, on this assumption, what is one to make of the three earlier wheels? The Merseburg wheel was only a foot thick over all–say 10 inches internal clearance (for the spokes must have had some thickness, and presumably the man did not go round with the wheel). This would be an impossible housing for anybody but a dwarf or a child–and the wheel was well attested to be self-moving. The machine at Draschwitz was only 6 inches thick, and that at Gera 4 inches–in such wheels any concealed human agency would be out of the question.

Again, granting that there was a man in the Weissenstein wheel, how did he manage to exist for two months in a sealed room and yet leave no indication of his presence at the end of that time ? There is no need to go into the details of such an enquiry.

But, finally, there is the testimony of the one man, apart from its maker, who ever saw the mechanism of the fourth wheel–the Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel. It is improbable that he would have countenanced a fraud from which he could derive no benefit, and whose exposure would be sure to involve him in undignified recriminations, merely to serve a man who was generally suspect and unpopular, and whom he must on this supposition have known to be a cheat. Yet here are the statements of 's Gravesande and Fischer.

(' s Gravesande.)
". . . The Landgrave being himself present on my examination of this machine, I took the liberty to ask him, as he had seen the inside of it, whether, after being in motion for a certain time, no alteration was made in the component parts; or whether none of those parts might be suspected of concealing some fraud; on which His Serene Highness assured me to the contrary, and that the machine was very simple."

" . . . His Highness, who is a perfect mathematician, assured me that the machine is so simple that a carpenter's boy could understand and make it after having seen the interior."

John Phin, in his Seven Follies of Science* (an able book of the nil admirari kind) has suggested another solution.

* The Seven Follies of Science, John Phin (New York, 1906).

"I have no doubt that this was a clear case of fraud, and that the wheel was driven by some mechanism concealed in the huge axle. As already stated Orffyreus was at one time a clock-maker; now clocks have been made to go for a whole year without having to be rewound, so that forty days was not a very long time for the apparatus to keep in motion."

Actually, the period of the test at Weissenstein was fifty-four days. That, however, although casting a shade of doubt on Phin's general accuracy, does not affect his argument. He might have made it even more •striking if he had known that Jean Romilly, a Parisian watch-maker (1714-96), had produced, about 1750, a watch capable of going for a year with one winding. But, really, it is no argument at all.

It is perfectly true that both weight-driven and spring-driven clocks have often been made which will go for a year without re-winding. But it is equally true that the stored power has necessarily to be doled out to their mechanism in such infinitesimal doses that all the moving parts have to be kept as light and frictionless as possible; and hence such clocks are utterly incapable of doing any more work than that involved in keeping themselves going. In consequence, they are not good timekeepers. The modern spring-clocks of the kind are beneath contempt; but the twelve-month weight-driven clock made by Daniel Quare about 1700, which was for a long time at Hampton Court, near Leominster,* is a good specimen. This was examined in 1873 by Mr. H. P. Palmer, a clock-maker of Leominster,* who found that the driving weight of the clock weighed 81 lb. and, with a fall of 4 feet 6 inches, had to drive the clock for 403 days. If we assume that Orffyreus' wheel weighed no more than a couple of hundredweight (which is probably a long way below the truth), such a store of power would not have kept it turning, in its bearings, for a single day at twenty-six turns a minute. In fact, I question whether, if Orffyreus had contrived to fill the whole of his immense drum with stored power in the form of weights or springs (and it must be remembered that no other ways of storing power were then known), he could, bearing in mind the great weight thus involved, have kept it turning for fifty days in 1-inch plain bearings.

* Rather confusingly, there is another twelve-month clock, also by Quare, at Hampton Court Palace. My friend Mr. Courtenay Ilbert possesses a third specimen.

Even if we grant the possibility of his having done so, there are two further objections, both of which are fatal. The power available would have been so slight that the wheel certainly could not have done work: the application of the cord connecting it with the water-raising plant would not have merely reduced its speed by a few revolutions–it would have slowed down gradually and steadily until it stopped altogether. And secondly, and for the same reason (the very slight power available), the wheel would, if it accelerated at all, have taken hours, or even days, to work up to a speed of twenty-six revolutions a minute–whereas it is attested to have actually done so, after being barely started, in a few turns.

This second objection–the very slow acceleration of the wheel if driven by clockwork–also disposes of the suggestion that it might possibly have been contrived, in some manner, to stop itself after the room was sealed and restart itself as the latter was being opened. I mention this point because I believe that some such contrivance was at the bottom of a curious paragraph which appeared in the Horological Journal for November 1881.*

* It was taken from The Times of Oct. 27, 1881. The box was probably opened on or about Oct. 15, which would make the period of the test 1000 days.

"A veteran watch-maker at Vouvry, Switzerland, claims to have invented a process (sic) by which watches will go for years without winding up.† A sealed box containing two watches, entrusted to the municipal authorities on the 19th of January, 1879, has just been opened, and the watches were found going.–The Times."

† It is, however, possible that these watches were self-winding. Such a watch, wound by the force exerted by the expansion and contraction (in heat and cold) of a small quantity of glycerine, was brought out in Switzerland about 1926.

It is scarcely credible that Orffyreus could have been able to determine beforehand, within an hour or so, the exact time of either the intermediate or final openings of the sealed room; in consequence, the restarting mechanism could not have been worked by, say, a two-month clock, but must have been set in action by the actual breakage of the seals or the opening of the door. The wheel, therefore, would have had only a few seconds to accelerate from rest to its maximum speed.

In addition, there is the Landgrave's direct statement, in the certificate which he gave to Orffyreus, that the construction of the machine was not such that it required winding up.

It would almost seem, then, that we must assume the mechanism of the wheel to have been such as to enable it to tap some natural source of power–unless, indeed, we prefer to believe that Orffyreus was generations ahead of his time, and fitted his machine with an electric motor, driven by current supplied either from accumulators inside the wheel or, via the pivots and bearings, from some external source. With regard to the latter hypothesis, credat Judæus Apella–I do not propose to discuss it.

However repugnant the notion may be to modern theories of dynamics and mechanics, contemporary accounts agree in stating that the machine was moved by the force of gravity. Thus, the account given in the Acta Eruditorum remarks: ". . . Orffyreus did not attempt to conceal that his machine was set in motion by weights," and Fischer, as already quoted, remarks: "... At every turn of the wheel can be heard about eight weights, which fall gently on the side towards which the wheel turns."

There is still stronger evidence (of a kind) to this effect–Orffyreus' own statement. I say "of a kind" because, as will be seen presently, his account of his own invention is entirely inconsistent with what we know of mechanics–from which it follows that he either did not understand himself how the machine worked, or deliberately gave a wrong explanation of its action. In either event, his evidence goes for little.

His account, which is short and obscure, is embodied in his pamphlet of 1719, in German and Latin, whose title may be translated as follows: “The Triumphant Orffyrean Perpetual Motion, dedicated in humble submission to all Ambassadors, High Heads, and Magistrates, and all ranks of the world. Presented for purchase and an offer projected by the Inventor Orffyreus. Printed in Cassel, October 1719, and published by the inventor himself; bound copies to be had of him at the Castle of Weissenstein."

It is a small octavo, set in rather battered type; the text, in German and Latin, appearing in parallel columns on the same page. Its style and contents certainly go far to justify the opinions of's Gravesande and de Crousaz as to its author's mental condition.

It contains, for example, no less than four dedications occupying, in all, not much less than half the book. The first is to God, the second to the general public, the third to men of learning, and the fourth to himself. It is full of windy rhetoric, of which the following specimen, from the Introduction, will serve:

". . . When I, at last, an unworthy man, was made an instrument in God's hands to solve this long-sought-for and valuable secret, and to give a representation, proposition, and instruction on this rare invention, no longer do I doubt, nay I presume, that as the discoverer I possess it, after many years of scrupulous doubts, much calumny, and exasperation from all my enemies. . . . "

Such account as he gives of the machine is ensconced in the Introduction. After citing and acknowledging the various benefits which he has received from the Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel, he continues:

" . . . In gratitude for all these gracious acts, I consented to make another example of my Perpetuum Mobile machine. I put all in fresh order, and began work in all possible haste, doing everything in the manner of those I had already made and destroyed, with only a few changes in the dimensions of the so-called turning-wheel. For as a grindstone may be called a wheel, so may the principal part of my machine be named.

"The outward part of this machine is drawn over, or covered, with waxed linen, and is in the form of a drum. This cylindrical basis is 12 Rhenish feet in diameter, the thickness from 15 to 18 inches, the middle axis 6 feet long and 8 inches in thickness. It is supported in its movement on two pointed steel pivots, each 1 inch thick; and the wheel stands vertical. The movement is controlled by two pendulums, as shown in the engraving at the end of this book.*

* See Plate III.

"The internal structure of the machine is of a nature according to the laws of mechanical perpetual motion, so arranged that certain disposed weights, once in rotation, gain force from their own swinging, and must continue this movement as long as their structure does not lose its position and arrangement.

"Unlike all other automata, such as clocks or springs, or other hanging weights which require winding up, or whose duration depends on the chain which attaches them, these weights, on the contrary, are the essential parts, and constitute the perpetual motion itself; since from them is received the universal movement which they must exercise so long as they remain out of the centre of gravity; and when they come to be placed together, and so arranged one against another that they can never obtain equilibrium, or the punctum quietus which they unceasingly seek in their wonderfully speedy flight, one or other of them must apply its weight at right angles to the axis, which in its turn must also move."

It must be confessed that if it were not for the attested performance of the wheel which Orffyreus thus describes, one would be tempted, at this point, to shut his book gently but firmly, and to clothe one's self with cursing, as with a garment,* at having wasted time in reading it. For by his account his mechanism was nothing more than a form of the "overbalancing wheel”–a hoary fallacy as old as the hills and as exploded as the Gunpowder Plot.

* ". . . He clothed himself with cursing like as with his garment" (Ps. cix. 18).
Theodore Hook's explanation of this remarkable phrase was, that the person referred to had a habit of swearing.

The idea (one cannot dignify it with the title "theory") of the overbalancing wheel has been (strange to say) well expressed by the Marquess of Worcester in his Century of lnventions,† as follows:

† "A Century of the Names and Scantlings of such Inventions as at present I can call to mind to have tried and perfected . . . ." (London, J. Grismond, 1663).

"56. To provide and make that all the Weights of the descending side of a Wheel shall be perpetually farther from the Centre, than those of the mounting side, and yet equal in number and heft to the one side as the other. A most incredible thing, if not seen . . . . "

In the history of "perpetual motion", nothing is more remarkable than the persistency with which this idea has been stumbled upon, over and over again, by inventor after inventor. Hundreds of these have wasted their time, money, and patience in the full persuasion that such an arrangement of weights has never been produced; but that, if it could be evolved, it would infallibly give perpetual motion.

Neither of these ideas is sound. The thing has been done over and over again–Worcester, in the same section of his book, asserts that he himself accomplished it,and there is no reason to doubt his statement. There are many ways of performing the feat (two are shown in Figs. 14 and 15, both invented by Dircks, author of the only work in English on "perpetual motion"),* but none of them brings us any nearer achieving "perpetual motion".

Perpetuum Mobile, or Search for Self-Motive Power. Henry Dircks, C.E. London, 1861 (second series, 1870). There is a German work of the same name by A. Daul (Leipzig, 1900).
Fig. 14.–An "overbalancing wheel", designed by H. Dircks, C.E., as a reconstruction of the Marquis of Worcester's wheel, in which the weights on one side were always a foot farther from the centre than those on the other.

The wheel has no tendency to rotate. It will be noted that two weights are vertically in line with the centre of the wheel, and that of the remainder 20 on the left side, nearer the centre, counterbalance 18, farther from the centre, on the right,
Fig. 15.—Another "overbalancing wheel", also designed by Henry Dircks, C.E., to show the fallacy of all such constructions.

The weight of each smaller ball and its attached rod slightly exceeds that of the larger ball; in consequence, it extends or contracts the lazy-tongs when the rod is vertical (in other positions the rod is prevented from sliding by stops inside the hub).

In spite of the fact that the larger bails on one side of the wheel are much farther from the centre than those on the other, the wheel has no tendency to rotate.
Consider the case of the common letter-balance; not the "bent-lever" form, but the older kind like a pair of scales. On one side is a small pan for the weights–on the other a large flat plate for the letter to be weighed. It makes no difference whereabouts on that plate you lay the letter–it may be as close as possible to the fulcrum, or almost falling off at the far-side of the plate. The same weight in the pan will counterbalance it, wherever it is.

That is because the "parallel-bar" arrangement of the links of the balance compels one scale to sink exactly as far as the other rises. It is true that the centre of gravity of the combined weights may be to one side of the fulcrum; but owing to the link-motion its position remains unaltered by any tilting of the beam. There is, therefore, no reason for the latter to tip.

So it is with the "overbalancing wheel". Even if its mechanism does what it sets out to do–even if it keeps all the weights on one side of the wheel farther from the centre than those on the other side–the wheel has no tendency to turn. Most of such wheels, however, are as defective in design as in theory; there is not one in a hundred which really keeps the preponderance of weight on one side of the centre throughout a complete revolution.  End of Part 1

8 thoughts on “The Wheel of Orffyreus 1

  1. Anonymous

    I don't know if perpetual motion can be achieved, or not but, if ANYONE tells you
    that it's impossible, then they MUST have access to a time machine, travelled to the 'end of time', found out for themselves, that perpetual motion IS impossible,
    made their way back to the present time, and told you. I don't think so, do you?
    If, in the meantime, perpetual motion IS found, and it violates the so-called 'laws'
    of motion ———————— too bad!

  2. John Collins

    It would be polite and legal and correct procedure as far as copyright goes, if you had referenced me, John Collins, as the discoverer and author of the illustration of Bessler's wheel containing the pentagram, shown by you at the beginning of this publication. The illustration is copyright.

    John Collins

    1. JHB

      Ugh… I am so sick of seeing the name ‘John Collins’ mentioned everywhere Bessler is spoken of. I wish he would stop associating himself with Bessler and PM. He degrades the whole subject, and that interpreted translation of Bessler’s book serve only to confuse. I’m probably being a bit harsh on the poor guy who obviously thinks a great deal of himself, and for that I apologize.

      1. NQ

        John did a tremendous amount of work – travelling to the library in Germany, scanning in the pages from Bessler’s last known copy of the book, and then he hired a gentleman who was well versed in old German, and paid him to translate Bessler’s work into English. Without his efforts, this would have been largely ignored or forgotten. John Collins is Bessler’s #1 advocate over 300 years later. I’m okay his name being mentioned because he has worked hard and spent a lot of money bringing this to our attention. What did you do?


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