Redheffer’s Perpetual Motion machine, 1812
I find even the simplest concepts of the laws that govern the world, what we now term physics, somewhat baffling but even I know that energy is something that needs to be transferred to an object to make it work. But in 1812 Charles Redheffer astonished the good citizens of Philadelphia by claiming that he had invented what he called a perpetual motion machine which required no energy to run. If his claims were well-founded, it would transform the world of physics as it was known then.
Redheffer had even produced a working model, which he proudly displayed in a workshop near the banks of the Schuylkill River, on the outskirts of the city. The curious were invited to inspect it but had to pay for the privilege, upwards of $5 a time if they were chaps and the fairer sex up to $1. The machine drew quite a crowd and emboldened by this success, Charles applied to the city council for a grant to build an all singing, all dancing version of the machine.
This proved to be his undoing.
In making his application for the funds, Redheffer explained that the perpetual motion machine transferred power to another machine by way of a set of interlocking gears. Eight city commissioners visited the workshop on 21st January 1813 to inspect the machine in detail but Redheffer refused to let them get too near, claiming that he was frightened they might damage it. Still, one sharp-eyed commissioner, Nathan Sellers, noticed that the gears on the machine were marked in such a way that suggested that it was receiving power from the other machine, not generating it, as Redheffer claimed.
Smelling a rat, the commissioners delayed the granting of funds and instructed a local engineer, Isaiah Lukens, to replicate Redheffer’s machine. Luckens used a clockwork mechanism hidden inside the machine to give it its power. When Redheffer saw the machine, he offered to buy it. When the ruse was revealed, Redheffer did what any self-respecting hoaxer would do, fled to New York, taking his machine with him.
Later that year, 1813, Redheffer exhibited his incredible Perpetual Motion machine in New York. As in Philadelphia, it went down a storm and crowds flocked, and paid, to see this mechanism which defied the laws of physics. One person who was drawn to the exhibition was a mechanical engineer named Robert Fulton. On inspecting the machine closely, Fulton noticed that it wobbled slightly and suspected that Redheffer’s marvel was being supplied with power by means of a hand-crank and that the operator was doing so in a jerky manner.
But where was the hand-crank and where was the operator secreted?
Fulton was of a sporting bent and offered Redheffer a sort of challenge. He, Fulton, would reveal the secret source of the machine’s energy or else he would reimburse the inventor for any damage he caused in the attempt to reveal the secret of the Perpetual Motion machine. Redheffer accepted the challenge.
Fulton removed some of the boarding behind the machine and spotted a piece of cord made out of catgut, which seemed to come from the floor above. Tracing it, Fulton revealed an old, bearded man sitting beside a hand-crank, which he turned laboriously with one hand while eating bread with the other.
The spectators, realising that they had been conned, smashed up the machine and once more Redheffer scarpered. He reappeared in Philadelphia in 1816, claiming to have built another machine and offering to exhibit it to the great and the good. Despite a number of meetings, Redheffer refused to reveal the machine.
Astonishingly, in 1820, Charles Redheffer was granted a patent for “machinery for the purpose of gaining power” but, alas, a fire at the Patent Office in 1836 destroyed all the records. We will never know whether it was the same machine.
If you enjoyed this, look out for Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone.