Inexhaustible energy

In 1719, Johann Bessler (1681-1745) published a book about his controversial invention: a wheel that never stopped turning or a perpetual motion machine (perpetuum mobile). Bessler wrote under the pseudonym Orffyre, a code name formed by respelling his surname according to the principle: A = N, B = O and C = P, etc. Printed in two languages – German in the left column in Gothic type and Latin in the right column in humanist type – the book was aimed at both a general and an academic audience. It is the most important source of evidence for Bessler’s claim that he had invented a perpetual motion machine – a claim still studied by today’s scholars. There is well-documented evidence that Bessler’s wheel continued to turn for weeks on end without any external manipulation…

The book and its background

Calling the book Das triumphirende perpetuum mobile Orffyreanum an alle Potentaten, hohe Häupter, Regenten und Stände der Welt (‘The triumphant perpetual motion machine of Orffyreus, to all the potentates, high leaders, regents and ranks of the world’), Bessler tried to convince readers that his invention was a true perpetual motion machine. On the inside front cover, Bessler is pictured as a mathematician employed by the landgrave Prince Charles of Hesse-Kassel, with another image of him on top of it, in which he is surrounded by mathematical instruments, with his face cut out of the image, matching up with the first portrait.

In the first part of the book, Bessler gives a general explanation of the features of his invention: a large revolving wheel, which was manipulated with weights such that rotation was self-sustaining (pp. 1-25). Later on, the landgrave Charles attests to the history of the invention (pp. 26-36), and Bessler continues his argument, highlighting, in particular, the social value of his device. He also writes that the secret of the machine will be revealed only at a price of 100,000 reichsthaler – a very large sum of money in those days.

The text is supplemented with the official testimonies of public servants who witnessed and tested his invention (pp. 107-130). Bessler then goes on to discuss the criticism and ridicule of his adversaries, citing, for example, a print in which a man behind a screen keeps Bessler’s wheel in continuous motion with a rope (p. 115). It is only after Bessler discusses a pamphlet written by Christian Wagner, another critic of his work (pp. 131-136), that he includes a picture of the invention with an explanation, plus a number of figures (pp. 136-144).

Finally, Bessler includes a number of passages praising his work written by scholars of the time (pp. 145-72). These include a poem in Dutch by G. M. Meetsma (p. 169), without doubt the Dutch hydraulic engineer Georg Michael Meetsma, who worked in the Kassel area. Meetsma writes that he heard the invention running in Weissenstein castle near Kassel, but did not see it because the landgrave kept it in a sealed room. These testimonies, along with Bessler’s own writing, are the key sources in support of Bessler’s claim.

Bessler’s wheel

In 1712, Bessler received his first testimony after demonstrating his first self-rotating wheel in Gera (Thuringia). Following a demonstration of a larger wheel in 1713 in Draschwitz near Leipzig, three of Bessler’s adversaries published pamphlets critiquing his work, accusing him of being a conman. Bessler then destroyed the wheel and built an improved version (which could turn in both directions) in Merseburg, where it was examined on 31 October 1715 by Maurice Wilhelm, duke of Saxe-Merseburg, in the presence of Dutch scholar Willem Jacob ‘s Gravesande and German scholar Gottfried Leibnitz. However, when s’ Gravesande tried to inspect the axle more closely, Bessler exploded in a fit of rage, as he was afraid that ‘s Gravesande might discover his secret. Once again, Bessler destroyed his own invention.

However, no one succeeded in proving that Bessler was a fraud and he became increasingly renowned. Intrigued, landgrave Prince Charles hired Bessler at Weissenstein castle, where Bessler constructed an even larger wheel measuring 36cm in width and approximately 3.7m in diameter. After its completion, the wheel was set in motion and the room was sealed off. Fifty-four days later the seal was broken, and the wheel was still turning …

Fact or fiction?

Andreas Gärtner, who himself had worked on the perpetual motion machine at the court of the king of Poland, was unable to prove that Bessler’s machine was a hoax. Thus losing a bet with Bessler, Gärtner was forced to pay him 1,000 thaler. ‘s Gravesande wrote an account of the incident to Isaac Newton, stating that once the wheel received a powerful push, it did not stop rotating. He also confessed that he could not work out whether Bessler was a fraud. No response from Newton has ever been found. In a letter to Dr Desaguliers, Baron Joseph Emmanuel Fischer, the architect of the Austrian emperor, also admitted that he was impressed by Bessler’s invention.

Despite these achievements, the publication of Das triumphirende perpetuum mobile Orffyreanum, and the attention of the Royal Society of London, Bessler still waited for an acceptable offer – to no avail. He began losing momentum, as suspicion remained regarding Bessler and others who claimed to have invented perpetual motion machines, which, in the eyes of many, went against the laws of physics. In 1727, the discussion ignited again when Bessler’s former maid claimed she had kept the wheel turning. Few people believed her story. Bessler decided to focus on other inventions, such as a submarine and a self-playing organ.

In 1745, he fell to his death while he was building a windmill, taking his secrets with him to the grave. To this very day, no one knows whether Bessler was a mechanical magician or a misunderstood inventor.

A gift from the author

The Latin title page of the Utrecht University Library copy (P qu 752) bears the inscription: Ex liberali donatione domini auctoris possidet me Joannes Andreas Cassellis die 31. Maii 1720, proving that Bessler himself gave this copy to Johannes Andreas from Kassel on 31 May 1720. The Johannes Andreas referred to is perhaps Johannes Andreas Weisse, who gave the second testimony about Bessler’s wheel on 31 October 1715 in Merseburg, where he served as a temporary public servant (Zeit bestellter Ambtmann) (pp. 120-4). It is not known how the book eventually ended up in the collection of Gerrit Moll (1785-1838). It is the only known copy in a Dutch library.

Further reading

  • Cocquyt, Tiemen, ''s Gravesande en het wonderwiel'. In: Ad Maas and Tiemen Cocquyt (ed.), Verborgen krachten. Nederlanders op zoek naar energie (Hilversum, 2011), p. 21-29.
  • Dircks, Henry, Perpetuum mobile; or, A history of the search for self-motive power from the 13th to the 19th century. 2 vols (London, 1870; reprinted in Amsterdam, 1968).
  • 's Gravesande, Willem Jacob, Oeuvres philosophiques et mathématiques (Amsterdam, 1774).
  • Schaffer, Simon, 'The show that never ends: perpetual motion in the early eighteenth century'. In: British journal for the history of science 28 (1995), p. 157-189.

Links

Wikipedia: Johann Bessler.

BJ, 2011
Das triumphirende perpetuum mobile Orffyreanum, titlepage
Das triumphirende perpetuum mobile Orffyreanum, portrait Bessler 1
Das triumphirende perpetuum mobile Orffyreanum, portrait Bessler 2

Johann Bessler, Das triumphirende perpetuum mobile Orffyreanum (P qu 752); Kassel, 1719.