By Clare O’Reilly
In 1904, Arnold Lupton, the Professor of Mining at the University of Leeds, donated a “decidedly quaint” curiosity to his university, a painting of an impossible object, a perpetual motion machine. The imposing oil painting depicts a large central over-balanced wheel connected to a fly-wheel which in turn ran a music box, a clock and a pump, which worked a fountain.
Perpetual motion is the idea that a machine will work self-sustained and forever. Once the laws of thermodynamics were established by the end of the nineteenth century, people realised that perpetual motion cannot work. However, a steady stream of inventors have proposed such machines, from the thirteenth century to today.
Dr Michael Kay dramatically opened our lecture with the cry “roll up, roll up, to see the incredible perpetual motion machine.” In the mid-nineteenth century science became a public spectacle, as crowds enthusiastically attended lectures, exhibitions and science demonstrations. The perpetual motion machine was featured in side shows at nineteenth century funfairs in America and possibly in Britain, despite the fact that it did not work. By 1861, Henry Dircks in his Perpetuum Mobile; or A History of the Search for Self-Motive Power lamented that seven centuries of perpetual motion machine failures had not deterred would-be inventors. Leonardo da Vinci thought about the concept and decided that it wouldn’t work. That did not stop others from attempting to design increasingly complex machines. These machines were well-known enough by the 1860s for the satirical paper Punch to ridicule perpetual motion. We can get an idea of how popular perpetual motion machines were from the hundreds of patent applications in America and Britain made for similar contraptions. What is unclear is whether the idea was for such a machine to drive other machines and produce power. That gives the device more commercial potential but the distinction was blurred, perhaps deliberately, between a machine that works forever and one that can drive other machines. A patent marked your invention as legitimated by the monarch, so a funfair curiosity could become a serious business proposal.
Michael explained that our machine was invented by Robert Hainsworth, a Leeds mechanic and later an assurance agent. We know little about him, other than that, in the 1890s, he took out a series of patents for valves and small mechanical parts, and lost his job in 1899. The connection between Professor Lupton and Hainsworth is uncertain, but they shared a political affiliation (both men opposed compulsory smallpox vaccination), and as a mining engineer Lupton would have been interested in machines to pump mine water. The painting was probably produced in the 1890s, but in his letter giving the painting to Leeds University, Lupton never explained where the painting has come from.
The story of the perpetual motion machine, and our painting, illustrates two recurrent themes in history and philosophy of science: the close association between technology and scientific knowledge and the role of artisan maker’s knowledge in science. Francis Bacon’s aphorism ‘knowledge is power’ (1597), that science would improve human life through its application, became the underlying new philosophy of science of the Enlightenment. This Baconian view recognised that empirical learning through instrument and machine-making could extend science itself. Science could also be practiced by an artisan, and not just by those with book-learning from a privileged background. The development of the steam engine provides a familiar example of maker’s knowledge in the history of technology: James Watt, a young instrument maker, partnered with natural philosopher Joseph Black, to improve the prototype ‘atmospheric engine’ and Watt steam engines were sold from the 1770s for pumping water from mines. This coupling, of artisan maker and scientist (as professionals doing science were known by the late nineteenth century), was also a feature of our perpetual motion machine’s story – although, as Professor Graeme Gooday then explained, Lupton would have known that the perpetual motion machine is impossible.
Graeme continued the lecture with a tour of the history of thermodynamics. There are at least two different forms of perpetual motion machines depending on whether the perpetual motion involves power being drawn from a machine or a machine just operates without power being drawn. Fraudsters demonstrated the latter to try to sell people the former type of machine. Charles Henry Draper’s best-selling physics textbook of 1893 noted that all attempts at producing a perpetual motion machine had failed; and explained why each type of machine was impossible. A machine cannot create or destroy energy, only transform it. This is the first law of thermodynamics, or, as Graeme quipped, “you can’t get more out than you put in”. Graeme explained how maker’s knowledge was involved again in the history of physics. In the 1840s, Manchester industrialist James Joule used his knowledge of brewing to establish a quantitative relationship between work and heat, and to infer that all was energy, which cannot be converted, and so established the first law. A perpetual motion machine would have to create energy without energy input and so is impossible. The second law of thermodynamics states that the more energy is transformed, the more of it is wasted, and the system moves towards entropy. So “you can’t get more out than you put in” and the second law is “you can’t get even that.” The second law means that power cannot be drawn from a perpetual motion machine. Ironically, the two types of failed perpetual motion machine have provided overwhelming experimental support for the first and second laws of thermodynamics.
The lecture ended with a modern-day contribution of maker’s knowledge from Andy Sloss of Leeds HackSpace. Andy had made a model of the perpetual motion machine in the painting. He described how his model should work and its various problems with friction and energy demand for 43 moving parts and 99 points of contact. The model is also unstable. It seems reasonable to assume that the designer must have been either a fairground con man or a gentleman dilettante inventor with little actual practical knowledge of machine-making. In fact, it seems likely that Hainsworth was neither, but instead an impecunious but inventive individual who believed that his machine might enable him to escape his bad fortune. The painting has wrinkles across the canvas which suggests that it was repeatedly rolled up. Perhaps Hainsworth used it to show potential investors, like Lupton, his invention? The quest for perpetual motion, Lupton thought, was “decidedly quaint” and Hainsworth was unlikely to get far with the professor yet, ironically, the quest for perpetual motion illustrates a wider shift of importance in the history of science and technology. At the start of the twentieth century, the combination of practical, artisan skills and commercial enterprise was emerging as a defining characteristic of modern science.
A video of the lecture is now available on our website. Please click here.