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Johann Bessler’s Wonder Wheel

Poor irascible Johann Bessler– when no one wanted to deal with the wheel he’d invented, he smashed the perpetually revolving prototype in a fit of pique.

Johann Bessler - Orffyreus - Portrait - Bessler's WheelSir Isaac Newton‘s statement that “seekers after perpetual motion are trying to get something from nothing” has never deterred inventors from trying to prove that they know better. When a British television producer recently advertised for examples of perpetual-motion devices he was astonished to receive replies from six people claiming to have devised machines that worked without the application of power and would continue to function unaided.

But none, no matter how ingenious, will ever arouse as much interest among scientists as the ‘self-moving wheel’ demonstrated in 1712 in Zittau, East Germany, by Johann Bessler.

His wheel was about a yard in diameter, four inches thick and, according to observers, able to keep going indefinitely without means of propulsion. Given a gentle push, the wheel gradually built up speed until it revolved 26 times a minute. More than that, when appropriately geared, it could lift small weights by means of a rope wound round its axle. Quite obviously a bigger and more powerful wheel would have been of tremendous value in a world that had yet to learn the value of steam power.

Unfortunately Bessler was not the most amiable of men. He wanted scientists to watch his demonstrations and accept his claims unquestioningly. When they did not he was furious and developed a pathological hatred of them all. They complained that he had told them nothing about the working of the wheel and had answered no questions.

In 1713 Bessler went to Leipzig and set up a wheel six feet in diameter and a foot thick. This, like the first, was completely covered, and worked up a speed of 26 revolutions a minute after a preliminary push. Observers said they could hear the sound of weights tumbling in it, but apart from that gleaned nothing of value.

First Supporter

Still no one would believe Bessler’s claims so on October 31st, 1715 he offered to give a third demonstration to a number of qualified citizens who could test it.

They came and a month later reported that “the machine of Johann Bessler… is a true perpetual motion… having the property to move right and left, being easily moved, but requiring a great effort to stay its movement; with the power of raising… a box of stones 70 pounds, 8 ells high perpendicularly.”

Instead of enlisting support this statement only provoked scientists into fresh statements of disbelief and ridicule. Meanwhile the wheel, it was said by those who saw it, continued to spin, unaided, at its usual rate.

At that stage, for no obvious reason, Bessler started signing himself ‘Orffyreus’ and recruited his first real supporter in the person of Graf Karl, landgrave of the small German state of Hesse-Cassel. Under his patronage he built his third and last wheel, was given the position of Town Councillor, enjoyed a modest income and had a home where he could carry on with his invention. In a shed in the grounds of Weissenstein Castle he perfected a new wheel which he had protected night and day by one of the landgrave’s soldiers.

By then the wheel of Orffyreus was well known and its ability to lift baskets of stones and similar objects was reported far and wide. In an era when water power was the only driving force for producing power the wheel should have been welcomed. Yet it was either ignored or derided. One of its chief opponents was the mathematician Claus Wagner, who flatly refused to see it, stating that his calculations proves that perpetual motion was an impossible dream and that Orffyreus’s claims were those of a charlatan.

Clock makers were similarly skeptical. They maintained that the wheel was powered by hidden springs and gears and some claimed that they could make a similar mechanism. They never did, but their antagonism and indifference made the angry inventor more embittered than ever.

He was was so objectionable that soldiers guarding the wheel looked upon that duty as a form of punishment. Finally Graf Karl became tired of all the wrangling and demanded proof that he was not being deceived by the inventor, stating that if convincing proof were not very soon produced he would withdraw his invaluable financial support.

Ungraciously Orffyreas agreed, moved the wheel into the castle and installed it in the center of a room so that for the first time, its axle did not touch the wall– two factors that had made many investigators suspicious of its completely independent action.

On November 12, 1717, the wheel was ready for a thorough examination by professors, experts on mechanics, makers of mathematical instruments and other persons of known integrity and impartiality.

Fit of Pique

Johann Bessler - Orffyreus - Diagram - Bessler's WheelThe wheel, which was 12 feet in diameter and turned on a metal shaft, was made of wood and, was, as always, covered. One man gave it a push and it began to spin, increasing in speed until it reached its maximum velocity. It was geared to perform simple tasks and then everyone left the room, first sealing the wheel so that it could not be tampered with in their absence. When they returned it was still moving and had not been touched.

They then left the room, sealed the lock and went away, to return a fortnight later. To everyone’s amazement it was still merrily revolving and all agreed that there was no deception. It moved under its own impetus and would, presumably, do so indefinitely– contrary to accepted laws of motion.

Convinced now that the world would clamor for his invention so that the principles could be applied to all kinds of machinery, Orffyreus offered to reveal his secrets to anyone, acting through Graf Karl, who would hand over to him the sum of $40,000.00.

But no one showed the slightest interest and as days passed Orffyreus’s ill temper grew worse. Sometimes he raged so wildly against those who belittled him that the landgrave thought he might commit suicide. To pacify him he asked to see the wheel without its cover.

Orffyreus consented and the landgrave examined it, noting a simple arrangement of levers and weights in which, as the wheel was started, weights on one side fell while the other side rose to tip its weights, creating a sequence that, apparently, went on unceasingly. Then he hurried away to write an account of what he had seen.

The inventor’s anger increased until he almost went mad. Raging against those who refused to recognize his genius he smashed the wheel to fragments. Then, in a fit of remorse, promised to build a bigger and better wheel and to try again. He never did. The wreckage caught fire and burned to ashes. Orffyreus parted company from the landgrave and died in November 1745– unsung but not forgotten.

Of the many attempts at producing perpetual motion his is the best known. Yet, despite its apparent efficiency and the testimony of experts of the day, it is now considered just another example of the unbalanced wheel that sounds as if it might work but doesn’t. Considered opinion requires that with power as with everything else, you can only get out what you put in– and Johann Bessler alias Orffyreus, put in nothing!