Tuesday, January 22, 2013

J. E. E. Bessler [Orffyreus]...an 18th Century con man?

Diagram of the wheel built by Orffyreus in Merseburg, taken from and based on an engraving published by Orffyreus in 1715. On the left is a side view and on the right a frontal view, both of the same device. The driving mechanism is supposedly hidden within the wheel. The three-bobbed pendula on the front and back of the wheel merely regulate its speed of rotation. The device is shown lifting a weight attached to a rope that wraps around the axle.


In the early 18th century, J. E. E. Bessler, known as Orffyreus, constructed several wheels that he claimed could keep turning forever, powered only by gravity. He never revealed the details of his invention, but he conducted demonstrations (with the machine’s inner workings covered) that persuaded competent observers that he might have discovered the secret of perpetual motion. Among Bessler’s defenders were Gottfried Leibniz, Johann Bernoulli, Prof. Willem ’s Gravesande of Leiden University (who wrote to Isaac Newton on the subject), and Prince Karl, ruler of the German state of Hesse-Kassel. We review Bessler’s work, placing it within the context of the intellectual debates of the time about mechanical conservation laws and the (im)possibility of perpetual motion. We also discuss Bessler’s long career as a confidence man, the details of which were discussed in popular German publications from the 19th century but have remained unfamiliar to authors in other languages.

"The Mechanical Career of Councillor Orffyreus,
Confidence Man" by Alejandro Jenkins

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