“A perpetual motion machine is a hypothetical machine that can do work indefinitely without an energy source. This kind of machine is impossible, as it would violate the first or second law of thermodynamics.”
Despite the fact that it’s impossible to build a perpetual motion machine, many have tried, and all have failed, including me. This is the story of how and why I attempted the impossible.
Two events happened when I was seventeen years old that led to my decision, but in order to understand why those events mattered, you should know a little bit about me. The Myers Briggs Personality Type Indicator says I have an INTP personality, and while that test isn’t perfect, it gives a pretty accurate description of me:
“INTPs are marked by a quiet, stoic, modest, and aloof exterior that masks strong creativity and enthusiasm for novel possibilities. Their weaknesses include poor organization, insensitivity to social niceties, and a tendency to get lost in abstractions. “
I’ve been that way my entire life, and like many other INTPs, I’ve also always had an affinity for puzzles. Growing up I was fascinated by riddles, chess, cross word puzzles, magicians and Celtic knots. So when I walked into my high school Economics class one day and noticed some student had left a print out of a chain-mail E-mail on the chalk board tray that contained a logic problem the E-mail claimed only 5% of the population was smart enough to answer, I greedily stole the paper and took it home with me. It took me five hours to solve the problem, and to be honest, I got a little conceited over my victory until I realized I was naive enough to believe statistics in a chain mail.
The puzzle was hard, but it wasn’t that hard. This made me want to know what my limits really were. So I bought a bunch of puzzle books and worked my way through them with varying levels of success, but after a while they all got boring. I was just rearranging words, shapes and numbers. My actions felt tantamount to mental masturbation. I wanted to solve a really hard puzzle just for the fun of it and to test myself, but I wanted to do something that mattered.
This is the state of mind I was in when the second event occurred. I was sitting on the living room floor drawing while my father flipped through the television stations. He stopped it on PBS, which was playing the first episode of Stephen Hawking’s Universe. I watched in awe as Professor Hawking’s sci-fi voice took me on a tour of the evolution of scientific innovation. He amazed me with tales of scientific geniuses who had the ambition and audacity to solve the fundamental riddles of the universe. I’d heard of Galileo and Isaac Newton before, but until then I hadn’t put them on my list of personal heroes.
I watched the rest of the series as PBS slowly aired them. Then I went to the mall and bought the series on VHS with money I’d earned working as a projectionist at a small town, three-screen movie theater. Every time I watched the tapes I understood a little bit more, but that just made me realize how little I really knew. I wanted to solve unsolved mysteries, but I knew I was never going to solve the problems cosmologists are working on today. Even if I could, I hate math. I wished I could have been born in Copernicus’s time. Back then a clever fellow could make historic discoveries with a few lenses and mirrors without using much math. By the time I was born all the easiest scientific questions had already been answered.
Feeling discouraged, I did some Google searches for unsolved scientific problems and stumbled across an article on perpetual motion. It hooked me immediately. Here was a real world logic problem that could have a profound potential impact on humanity as well as my self-worth.
I bookmarked every site on the internet that even mentioned perpetual motion, and almost every one of them stated, with varying degrees of belligerency, that anyone who attempts to build a perpetual motion machine is stupid. I understood the reasoning behind the warnings, but they’re a little short sighted.
Would these same critics ridicule anyone who attempted to solve the world’s hardest crossword puzzle? Time enjoyed is never time wasted. There’s no reason to judge people who want to try to solve theoretical logic puzzles, even when that entails building a useless machine. There are far worse hobbies a person could have, like trolling aspiring inventors on the internet. I knew from the beginning there was at least a 99.99% chance I’d fail, but the worst possible outcome is all my efforts would only amount to me having fun and practicing my thinking skills. If anyone laughed at me for that, then that’s their problem.
After ignoring the Internet’s warnings, I set a goal to design a machine that isn’t a true perpetual motion machine; it would break down eventually, but it would generate enough electricity in its lifetime to make the cost/benefit analysis of building it add up. The problem with this goal is that it means the machine would have to generate more energy than it uses, which is even more impossible than building a machine that can run without losing energy.
These facts didn’t intimidate me, because I learned the secret to solving impossible problems from Captain James T. Kirk on Star Trek: Cheat.
If I couldn’t beat the rules, I would just work around them. Instead of building a machine that runs on its own power indefinitely, I would power it with a relatively inexhaustible energy source like gravity, buoyancy or magnetism. I hoped I could direct them in a novel way that tricks them into behaving counter-intuitively yet technically sound. These are my designs:
My first idea used magnetism and gravity to pull a metal ball up a ramp. Just before reaching the magnet it would fall down a hole, and roll down a ramp back to its starting point and repeat the process. This idea probably wouldn’t work, because the magnet would just pull the ball over the hole.
I thought you might be able to solve that problem by attaching a mechanism that uses the force of the ball to push a lever that either moves the head of the magnet away or pushes the ball away from the magnet, allowing the ball to fall down the hole.
If that concept worked, you could replace the ramp with a vertical shaft and replace the ball with a piston.
Magnets wear out eventually though. So I came up with a design that only uses gravity as the power source: Attach wheels to ten identical rolling weights that basically look like trolley cars. Connect each trolley with identical length strings so they’re all connected in a circle. Put the trolley chain on a long, winding ramp that they roll down. At the bottom of the ramp is a steep vertical slope that leads back to the top of the ramp. The idea is that as long as more trolley cars are rolling down hill, pulling the car behind them, than there are trolley cars being lifted from the end back to the beginning, then the descending cars should lift the ascending cars.
One problem with the trolley car idea is that it creates a lot of friction. I hypothesized I could improve the idea by turning it upside down and submerging it in water. Instead of using weighted trolleys, connect a ring of hollow buoys following a long, winding path up to a steep decline, where they would be pulled down to their point of origin by the higher number of rising buoys.
I wanted to come up with a design that involved a spinning wheel, since that would make it easier to generate electricity. So I drew plans for a wheel with angled magnets that repel off other magnets anchored outside the wheel. I bought a hamster wheel and $100 worth of magnets, and proved that this idea doesn’t work. The force from the external magnet that pushes one internal magnet away will prevent the next incoming internal magnet from passing the field of the external magnet.
The wheel could spin if you could turn the magnets off until they’re in position to repel. You could create this effect easily using electromagnets, but that would use more electricity than it produces. The wheel might spin if you could block the magnetic field until the magnets are in position to repel, but I don’t know of any material that blocks magnetic fields. The wheel might also spin if the magnetic fields could be redirected with ferromagnetic metal or you used a mechanism to push the external magnet away until the internal magnet is in place to be repelled.
Even if those plans did work, they still used magnets. It would be better to have a wheel that’s powered just by gravity. In order for weights in a wheel to spin the wheel indefinitely, there would have to be more weights pushing counterclockwise than clockwise. I hoped that could be achieved through the use of two ramps.
At the age of 19 I tried building this wheel using paper and straws. It didn’t work. So I took the spokes out of a bicycle and replaced them with cardboard rectangles and golf balls. The balls kept getting stuck and bouncing away until the cardboard bent. So I bought two Erector Sets and made a more stable wheel. I never could get the weights to stay on track.
Having spent hundreds of dollars and hours, I finally decided I didn’t have the engineering skills to build anything. To this day, I still can’t put Ikea furniture together without it being wobbly and crooked. So I gave up trying to build a perpetual motion machine and got on with my life. I’ve thought about paying someone to construct my designs, and I would, but I’m not convinced any of these designs would actually work. Someday when I’m old and have more disposable income, I may pay someone to build all of them so I can decorate my foyer with them.
Even if they don’t work, they would make interesting steam punk decorations. They’d be good conversation starters. You’re welcome to use and profit from my perpetual motion machine designs in any way you want, free of charge. They’re free domain.
My quest for meaningful puzzles didn’t end when I quit working on my perpetual motion machine. In fact, part of why I lost interest is because I had moved on to the next puzzle: the meaning of life.