Tech UPTechnologyThe day Orffyreus built a perpetual mobile (and no...

The day Orffyreus built a perpetual mobile (and no one knows how he did it)

Throughout the seventeenth century, and especially at the beginning of the eighteenth, in the dark laboratories of scientists, they worked feverishly looking for machines that “once set in motion, they will work carrying out their movements eternally and also without the application of any force: of man, the horse, the wind, the river or a fountain, and at the same time they will carry out different works for the well-being and flourishing of the state”. So read the text of an English patent from 1635. The perpetual mobile, the perfect engine capable of revolutionizing technology and people’s lives . Patent offices all over Europe were inundated with proposals, reasonable or outlandish, for different eternal machines, and their workings were hotly debated in aristocratic salons.

Orffyreus arrives

It is at this moment that Johann Ernst Elias Bessler enters the story, the son of a peasant born in 1680 in some small village in the forests of the Bohemian border. Bessler changed his name to one that did not betray his peasant background and became Johannes Orffyreus . We do not know how or why he became interested in perpetual motions, but in 1712 he built his first model of a wheel that supposedly, once started, could keep turning indefinitely. But unlike the other inventors, no one could know what the mechanism was that animated it. Shortly after, and for no apparent reason, Orffyreus destroyed it.

In 1715 he moved to Merseburg, in eastern Germany, where he built a second, larger mobile, which he presented to a commission of specialists. Despite the insistence of the members of the commission – to which we should add the bonus of some extra money – Orffyreus again flatly refused to allow them to examine its interior . The commission certified that the mobile “rotates at a speed of 50 revolutions per minute and lifts a load of 40 pounds [18 kg] to a height of 5 feet [1.5 m].” Orffyreus published a booklet entitled A Detailed Description of the Fortunate Invention of the Perpetual Motion Along With Its Exact Representation . From his diagrams it is impossible to discern how he managed to turn the wheel.

His strategy of not teaching anything was a complete success. By making sure that no one could understand his mechanism, he drew attention to himself and increased interest in his “lucky invention”, as he called it. Of course, so much mystery was also suspicious. Christiaan Wagner, a Leipzig lawyer and mathematician, believed that hidden from view was a hidden mechanism that was set in motion from without . The mathematician and astronomer Andreas Gärtner thought the same way: surely there was a hidden person who was pulling a rope. So convinced was he of his conjecture that he bet 1,000 thalers that he would unmask him.

For his part, the “last universal genius”, the great Gottfried Leibniz , was convinced that a perpetual mobile could not be built, but he was so impressed by the stories that came to him about the Orffyreus machine that on September 9, 1714 he went to visit it. The visit must have shocked the great mathematician because in a letter he wrote to Areskine, personal physician to Tsar Peter I the Great, he said that Orffyreus was a friend of his, that he had carried out a series of careful experiments with the machine and believed that it would be very useful to study it. for several weeks.

The great challenge to science

In 1716, the Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel, Charles I, a man fond of science, invited him to his home, the Wissenstein Palace. He was so impressed by Orffyreus’ personality that he made him a councillor. Comfortably installed, our inventor began the construction of his third perpetual mobile ; a year later the machine was ready. On November 12, 1717, he presented it to a commission that included the physicist Willem Jacob’s Gravesande and the architect Joseph Emanuel Fischer von Erlach. As usual, no one could inspect the internal mechanism of the machine that would be left spinning inside a room with the door sealed. After two weeks the seals were lifted: the wheel was still turning at the same speed as at the beginning. The room was resealed 40 more days, 60 more days and the wheel never stopped moving. The commission was unable to find “anything outside the wheel that contributes to its movement.” In 1721 Gravesande wrote to Isaac Newton praising the marvelous machine, although he recommended further study: they had not been able to discover the fraud. A year later, the mathematician Johann Bernoulli wrote to Gravesande saying that they were possibly dealing with a mixed perpetual motion , where the action of gravity was combined with some “active principle”. The scientific community was perplexed: would this uneducated farmer’s son have achieved the impossible?

As a climax to his work, Orffyreus wrote a 200-page book entitled Orffyreus’s famous perpetual mobile where he dedicates the first part of the book to his engine. His description is brief and incomprehensible, as much as the drawing that represents him . In it we see a wheel with a bucket wrapped around the axle for some obscure reason, a tube from the top of which water comes out and which apparently falls into a sink… There is no way to find out how it works or what each of the elements is for. what we see there. Everything is very mysterious. Compared to other diagrams of perpetual motors, where the underlying physics are readily apparent, there is nothing in Orffyreus that gives the slightest clue as to how or why it works. The text also does not provide any argument or provide any ideas to solve the puzzle.

Russia is interested in the wheel

Interest in his machine grew. Pedro I of Russia commissioned his librarian Schumacher , taking advantage of his trip to Europe with the mission of inviting renowned scientists to Russia, hiring engineers and buying books, to speak with Orffyreus. When he got to Weisenstein he couldn’t see it working: Orffyreus had destroyed it because he believed that Gravesande wanted to extract his secret.

Schumacher and Orffyreus began to negotiate. After heated discussions, Orffyreus made his last proposal: “Put 100,000 rubles on one side and I’ll put the machine on the other.” Surely Schumacher would have accepted if it hadn’t been for the opinion of Christian Wolff, Germany’s most eminent philosopher after Leibniz and before Kant. Wolff wrote a very detailed report expressing all his reservations. The purchase stopped. Since then Orffyreus himself tried, through intermediaries, to sell his invention to the Tsar. Willing to settle the whole matter, Pedro I decided that on his next trip, planned for 1725, he would meet with the Saxon. It could not be; the Tsar died in January of that year.

In November 1727 the bomb fell. His servant, Anna Rosina Mauersbergerin, testified under oath that the wheel was moved by a hidden transmission , connected to the next room – Orffyreus’s chambers – and powered by Orffyreus, his wife, her and her brother. Was it really that simple? How could he hide such a mechanism from the eyes of scientists, who were determined to discover the fraud? We will never know. Gravesande did not believe this confession.

Orffyreus’s star went out. Arrested in 1733 (we do not know under what charges), on May 1 he wrote in his own handwriting: “I have burned and buried all the papers that demonstrate the possibility of perpetual motion.” He was released in 1738 and died 7 years later, taking his secret to his grave. And although today no one doubts that the Orffyreus machine was a fraud, the mystery remains: no one knows how he built it and managed to fool the most brilliant scientific minds of the time .


Broadinski, VM (1989) Perpetual Mobile Then and Now, Editorial Mir

Collins, J. (1997) Perpetual motion: an ancient mystery solved?, Permo Pub.

Ord-Hume, A. W. J. G. (1980) Perpetual motion. The history of an obssesion, St. Martin Press

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