HPS in 20 Objects Lecture 13: Perpetual Motion Machine

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 Machine Painting

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.


A Perpetual Motion Machine  Model by Andy Sloss and HackSpace Leeds

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.


From Left to Right: Greg Radick, Andy Sloss, Michael Kay and Graeme Gooday

A video of the lecture is now available on our website. Please click here.


HPS in 20 Objects. Lecture 12: Laennec Stethoscope, or: is it?

By Polina Merkulova

The stethoscope is one of the most familiar medical instruments of our time and serves as a universal symbol of medical profession. In the 12th lecture of the HPS in 20 Objects series Dr Adrian Wilson and Caz Avery shed light on the incredible role this humble instrument played in bringing about the medicine as we know it now.

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“What do you think of when you think of a doctor?” Dr Adrian Wilson and Caz Avery tell us that “stethoscope” is, of course, the right answer.

They started by explaining historical significance of the stethoscope and percussion (a clinical method of tapping on the chest to determine if there is liquid inside), which completely transformed diagnosis and medicine as a whole. Before those techniques were introduced – percussion in 1761, stethoscope in 1819 – medicine had largely been patient-led. It meant that doctors based their diagnosis on the symptoms described by the patients, which is reflected in the diagnostic categories of the time. However, the popularisation of those clinical methods brought forward anatomy-based medicine characterised by diagnosis founded on the combination of symptoms, anatomical causes and specific signs observable only to a trained practitioner.

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Caz demonstrates percussion of the chest.

Why were the stethoscope and percussion crucial? Firstly, both of them allowed the doctors to “see” inside the living body by listening to the sounds it produced, hence, they provided the doctors with the means to make their own observations independent from the patients’ self-report. Secondly, both methods relied on anatomico-clinical correlation – the activity of relating symptoms in the living patient to the subsequent post-mortem findings in the dead body. The inventors of the new methods used it to prove that they helped to accurately identify causes of the patient’s symptoms, e.g. that a dull sound produced by percussion was the result of excess liquid in the lungs.

Although the necessity of linking symptoms to anatomical causes seems painfully obvious to a modern observer, Adrian explained that it was not always so. He argued that before the end of the 18th century the opportunities for carrying out anatomico-clinical correlation were severely limited; it was technically very difficult as both the symptoms and post-mortem findings were seldom simple; and it need to be done systematically on a vast scale to be useful for diagnosis. Until these difficulties were overcome they had not only prevented the invention of new effective methods of medical examination but, also, the recognition of their importance. For instance, other doctors did not accept percussion, invented by Auenbrugger in mid-18th century, until 1794, when it was taken up at the newly established Paris medical school, which offered the opportunity for anatomico-clinical correlation on an earlier unprecedented scale.

The stethoscope’s inventor, René Laennec, first studied and then taught at the Paris school. He frequently used percussion and a method known as immediate auscultation (listening to the patient’s chest by applying an ear to it directly) and, he claimed, that the relative ineffectiveness of the latter practice led him to inventing a better one – mediate auscultation or listening through the stethoscope. Caz told us, that Laennec first got his idea when faced with a difficult case in 1816 and then perfected it further working with the TB patients at Necker Hospital. He presented his invention to the Paris Académie des Sciences in 1817 and published the book on mediate auscultation in 1819.

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Laennec examines a consumptive patient with a stethoscope in front of his students at the Necker Hospital by Théobald Chartran. As we now know, here Laennec is performing immediate auscultation, while simply holding the stethoscope in his hand.

In contrast with percussion, the stethoscope was taken up very quickly in most of the main centres of medical teaching across Europe. Our own stethoscope demonstrates as much. Its design clearly shows that it was made within 10 years of Laennec’s original invention. We know that it was donated by a Leeds doctor Edward Atkinson and that he had received it from his father, a surgeon John Atkinson, who studied in Paris. This furnishes us with three possible origin stories for our stethoscope: it might have come straight from Laennec himself, or made in France and imported to Britain, or made by one of the first British stethoscope-makers in London. Even though it would be interesting to determine which one of these options is true, the lecturers assured us, that, in a sense, it does not matter because all three point to the incredible and immediate popularity of the stethoscope not only in France but also in Britain.

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A fragment of the relief in the Temple of Kom Ombo (Egypt) sometimes misidentified as a stethoscope.

The lecture was concluded by the handling session with the 3D-printed replica of the museum’s stethoscope and a brief Q&A session, during which Adrian and Caz dispelled a popular myth that the stethoscope was invented by ancient Egyptians and engaged the audience in a lively discussion about the future of the stethoscope.


*Join us on the 28th March for Lecture 13: A Perpetual Motion Machine*

HPS in 20 Objects Lecture 11: Astbury Camera or, ‘From Dark Satanic Mills to DNA’

By Alex Aylward

Many of us enjoy rooting for the underdog. The sporting world is probably the arena in which this sentiment is most commonly manifested. But what about the history of science? In the 11th lecture in this series, Dr Kersten Hall and Helen Piel treated us to an underdog’s tale: a tale of Leeds’ important place in the history of molecular biology;  of prescience and priority; of the serendipity of scientific discovery; a tale, as is becoming customary in this series (see lecture 9 on the ‘Anthrax finger’), of wool.

Few scientific achievements are as salient in the public consciousness as the discovery of the double-helical structure of DNA, the genetic material. Most of us know the story of the co-discoverers, James Watson and Francis Crick, announcing to their fellow patrons at the Eagle pub in Cambridge that they had “discovered the secret of life.” And nowadays, as Kersten emphasised, we can barely glance at the news without being greeted by stories of genes-for this-or-that trait, or disease.

Mythbusting is a not-uncommon activity for the historian of science. Textbooks and the media often package up the history of a given scientific episode in neat and convenient ways, jettisoning many of the extra details and actors that make them so fascinating. Nowadays, we rightly remember the essential role that Rosalind Franklin played in the unravelling of the helix. But there are still other strands to the story, missing from the yarn that popular accounts and student biological texts habitually spin. Kersten and Helen ably weaved these additional strands, yielding a more nuanced and inclusive history of the dawn of molecular biology.



Astbury’s x-ray camera

The textile-inspired metaphors are not accidental. The story centres on wool. When the young William Astbury left London for Leeds in 1928, to take up a Lectureship in Textile Physics, he worried he was “going into the wilderness.” In London he had worked with William Bragg, former Cavendish Professor of Physics at the University of Leeds, who along with his son Lawrence, won the 1915 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work in the development of X-ray crystallography (the principles of which Helen Piel adeptly informed us, with the help of some rather fetching ‘x-ray specs’). Bragg set Astbury the challenge of investigating whether, and how much, X-ray crystallography could tell us about the nature of molecules that make up living things. Wool, being central to Yorkshire’s economy, was an obvious and potentially profitable, place to start. Through this work, crucial steps were made in understanding the molecular structure of proteins, and it represents a milestone in the explication of everyday properties of biological materials (the springiness and stretchiness of wool) with reference to the structure of its constituent molecules.


A mathematician colleague of Astbury celebrate the latter’s investigation of wool with a poem

In the 1940s, the pioneering work of Oswald Avery (another crucial figure in the origins of molecular biology whose achievements have been perhaps unduly dwarfed in popular histories by those of Watson and Crick) alerted the scientific community to the role of DNA (previously presumed to be a merely structural cell component) as the genetic material. Astbury and his colleagues were galvanised, and against the obstacles of a hesitant University Senate, sub-par infrastructure, and snubs by funding bodies, the X-ray camera was utilised for probing the structure of DNA. Indeed, in 1951, an image strikingly similar to Franklin’s ‘Photo 51’ (which has been described as one of the most important photographs in history, and was a crucial clue in Watson’s and Crick’s proposing the double-helical structure of DNA) was produced. Lacking the conceptual framework for interpreting this image in the way his Cambridge counterparts famously did, Astbury shelved the photo, devoting instead his attention to the manipulation and utilisation of biological fibres towards human ends (resulting in the ICI fashioning him an overcoat made from the fibres extracted from monkey-nuts!). Kersten speculated that, for Astbury, who was guided by an interest in structure, rather than function, a helix (if he had managed to hit upon such a model), might even have been disappointingly monotonous.


An image that features in Astbury’s student Florence Bell’s PhD thesis in 1938 showing x-ray diffraction patters caused by DNA


The lecture was anything but. The narrative was littered with quips, voice-clips, and anecdotes about locks of Mozart’s hair, as well as profound reflections on what light the story of Astbury’s involvement in the origins of molecular biology could shed on some of the big questions about science and the study of life. Outside of the UK, Kersten mused, mention of Leeds quite often evokes (if it is known at all) mention of The Who’s Live at Leeds, recorded at the University student’s union in February 1970. Kersten and Helen assured us not only that William Astbury should take pride of place in any who’s who of Leeds, but that Leeds itself deserves recognition in any discerning history of molecular biology.


Kersten treated us to a real who’s who of Leeds History

The 12th lecture in the series takes place on the 28th February at 6:30pm, in the Rupert Beckett Lecture Theatre. Dr Adrian Wilson and Caz Avery will introduce us to an early stethoscope, throught to have been made by the device’s inventor René Laennec.

HPS in 20 Objects Lecture 9: Anthrax Finger. Or, ‘Death in 24 Hours’: The Making of Modern Anthrax

By Alex Aylward

The ninth instalment of the HPS in 20 objects lecture series centred upon easily the most gruesome artefact yet: a dismembered finger of an Anthrax victim, preserved since 1914 in formaldehyde. Dr Jamie Stark and PhD student Richard Bellis were our expert tour guides through time and across space, as we learned―through the lens of this grisly digit―about: the history of a disease (or, indeed, diseases); the birth of the practices of preserving and collecting anatomical specimens; the politically-charged negotiations of medical expertise amongst a wide variety of peoples, and most importantly; the infectious mohair of Turkish Angora goats.


Professor Greg Radick introduces the speakers, with the gruesome Anthrax finger to his right, and pictured on the screen

Jamie’s narrative began locally, with the case of the sudden death of James Greenwood, a Bradford wool-sorter who, in July of 1880, complained of an “aching in his bones” as he returned home from another gruelling day in the factory. Within 24 hours, he was dead. Reported in the local newspaper, Greenwood’s death was attributed to “Wool-sorters disease”. Nowadays, we would simply classify this malady as “Anthrax.” And we might think that by 1880, amid the so-called “bacteriological revolution” (the period in which medical practitioners began attributing causal status to specific microorganisms in the development of particular diseases), that Greenwood’s contemporaries would have been beginning to do the same. However, Jamie did a wonderful job of emphasising the protracted nature of the negotiations over the identity of this particular ailment; though the term “anthrax” was used at this time (and long before) to describe the symptoms presented in Greenwood, it was far from universal. For workers in the wool factories, branding the disease as their own, one specific to their working conditions, would provide leverage in bargaining for the improvement of these conditions. The establishment were sceptical, attributing the cases to the kinds of conditions found in workplaces everywhere, or even to the drinking habits of the workers. Disagreement over the cause, nature, and identity of this disease, which presented itself through sores and pustules on the skin (thus providing the excuse for our speakers to display numerous grim pictures), raged throughout most of the latter half of the 19th, and into the 20th century.


Dr Jamie Stark explains the representations of anthrax symptoms used to raise awareness among wool factory workers

Zoning in on the finger itself, we heard from Richard about the beginnings of the practices of preserving and collecting anatomical and pathological specimens in the 18th century. What with corpses being relatively difficult to come by, and possessing a limited shelf-life, the preserving of dismembered body parts was a flexible tool for building up a large catalogue of reusable specimens in teaching. Samples could be prepared in different stages of the decay process, or utilising various techniques to emphasise particular aspects of the specimen. The impact of these practices, Richard explained, extended beyond the realm of science and medicine, inspiring the innovative floral arrangements depicted in the paintings of figures like Rachel Ruysch.

   big-bird-anthraxRichard Bellis explains the drawbacks of using cadavers in demonstration; seven of the Sesame Street gang have to crowd around one specimen, as Big Bird orates

We were then transported from the local to the global (and back again), as Jamie resumed his story by telling us about Friedrich Wilhelm Eurich of Bradford, also known as “Professor Anthrax”. Eurich, we heard, was instrumental in putting measures in place to prevent wool-sorters from becoming victims of the disease, such as a system for wool disinfection, and the introduction of into factories of “cautionary notices” advising workers to seek medical advice immediately should any of the described (and colourfully pictured) symptoms present themselves. Leaving Yorkshire behind, we were taken across the globe to learn about some of Anthrax’s other alter egos. In Australia, the “Cumberland disease” ravaged livestock in the region of modern-day Sydney, prompting numerous attempts to provide cures or vaccinations for this economically detrimental illness, some more successful than others. We then moved on to Turkey, where the mohair of Angora goats living around lake Van was pinpointed by Bradford journalists as carrying the much-feared disease (known locally as “Dallack”) on its way to British shores.


The Angora Goat, in all its glory

The lecture ended with some provocative reflections. We tend to think of diseases as being well-defined, and the expertise upon them belonging to an exclusive and highly-trained medical elite. Dr Stark demonstrated how little over 100 years ago, the picture looked very different indeed. The diseases discussed in this lecture were defined divergently based, not just on symptoms and causes, but also on location, and even the occupation of the patient. Farmers, workers, employers and journalists joined physicians in offering their own thoughts on the nature of diseases. Later in the twentieth-century, the cultural authority of medical practitioners reached what may be seen by future historians as its peak. I can’t help thinking that today, as we increasingly consult search-engines and our fellow internet-users concerning matters medical, and the spectre of a “post-truth,” “post-fact,” “post-expertise” world looms, we are particularly well-placed to appreciate the fragility of the authority of medicine and science, and thus to uncover the historical and social processes through which that authority was achieved in the not-so-distant past.


Next month’s lecture sees the series reach its halfway-point. Professor Gregory Radick will introduce us to the Newlyn-Phillips Machine, and use it to show us “How Money (with Help from Models and Maths) Makes the World Go Around”. With the lecture taking place on 13th December, and thus well into the notoriously pocket-emptying festive season, I’m sure few of us will be able to disagree.

HPS in 20 Objects Lecture 8 – Brain Knife

The second HPS in 20 Lecture of this academic term has kept to the exceptional standard we have come to expect from this series. Like all of these talks, one central object was used to catalyse a discussion that ended up being extremely wide-ranging; taking us to considerations of the very nature of our being. However, the lecture began with PhD researcher and museum expert Laura Sellers explaining how the museum had come into possession of what initially seemed to be a rather ordinary looking Knife. Rather like the ones my Gran used to keep. However, this was in fact a knife used for dissecting the brains of the dead. Laura pointed out that it had been designed with a small horn handle and a disproportionately long blade in order that its users could wield it with the requisite delicacy for long cutting strokes through soft tissue. And who were these delicate users? Most likely, they were teachers and researchers working in Pathology at Leeds in the Algernon Firth Institute or Thoresby Place.


School of Pathology on St. George Street opened in 1933 by Algernon Firth

We were then shown images of the places and contexts in which these tools would have been used, leading up to the site of the current Medical School in the ‘concrete extravaganza’ that is the Worsley Building. I had just the week before started working in administration in the medical school and delighted at telling my new colleagues the next day that the Medical School had just had its 850th birthday on the 25th of October. Turns out I had misheard this and it was actually 185 years old.  They were either too polite or too sorry for me to point out my ridiculous error. Luckily there was nothing ridiculous in the main body of the lecture, which was given by Marie Curie Fellow Dr Sean Dyde.


Van Aeken, Cure of Folly or the Extraction of the Stone of Madness, 1485

Sean began his discussion of the brain knife by giving some context about why people have traditionally cut into brains and indeed into skulls, and pointed out that the notion of the mind being connected to the brain isn’t actually an especially Western idea. He then moved onto explain how he would situate the mind brain dichotomy in a particular discussion of the Age of Enlightenment, that is, the eighteenth century. Sean was clearly passionate about this subject matter and he really came into his own here, with some really lovely turns of phrase used to describe this period: ‘an Age of Improvement, an Age of Refinement, an Age of absolute monarchs, an Age of Enlightenment. A time of new wealth, paper money, stock bubbles and market crashes; Greco-Roman architecture, English gardens and Gin Lanes.’

At this point, perhaps predictably, but clearly necessarily, Descartes came in. It would be bizarre indeed to describe conceptions of the mind in the 17th and 18th century without resource to the Cartesian method. However, Sean did not relate the brain knife to philosophy in isolation; he took us on a fast paced tour of literature, politics, drugs, and science.

The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli



Sean was able to condense a great deal of complicated ideas into an entertaining and provocative lecture, which I found thoroughly enjoyable. My favourite parts probably centre round his discussion of Tristram Shandy (a book I have not read, but now intend to) and his ideas about the relationship of the romantics to God, art, and opium. The link between nineteenth century phrenology and a recent paper in the journal Nature, in which its authors highlighted 360 localised areas of the brain, provoked the most questions from the audience. There was in fact so much in the lecture that I’m really struggling to provide a succinct summary of the diverse areas it touched upon. Of course it was a subject area that I am well familiar with, but my friend Amy (a physiology researcher) said that she had loved learning about medicine in such a different way. It should not only be recommended for its variety, but also for the elegant prose Sean used throughout. I suppose what I want to get across is how interesting and entertaining this was, and highly recommend that anyone reading this should also watch the recording below.

As always though, these lectures are best experienced live, and the selection of objects on display at this one was particularly fascinating (or particularly disgusting depending on your sensibilities). A preserved sheep’s brain and wax models of embryonic development of the brain were used to good effect to illustrate points in the lecture, and we were invited to take a closer look at the end. On Tuesday the 22nd of November we are going to be treated to an Anthrax ridden finger floating in a jar, and I, for one, cannot wait.