Perpetual motion machine

Sept. 20, 2017 – For many years, humankind has quested for a machine of perpetual motion – something mechanized that would not stop moving. The first documented attempt comes from the Indian author Bhaskara around 1159. The machine was a wheel with containers of mercury around its rim, which was supposed to always maintain weight on one side as it spun, and thus keep moving.

Many other attempts would follow, some to prove and some to disprove the possibility of such an invention. Friction and other forces inevitably win out, but the idea of the mythical machine has persisted. Leonardo DaVinci is quoted as saying, “Oh, ye seekers after perpetual motion, how many vain chimeras have you pursued? Go and take your place with the alchemists.”

However, on this date in 1913, rumors were running rampant around North Dakota that J. W. Kennedy, of Mandan, had invented just such a machine. It consisted of a wheel six feet in diameter with nine spokes. Kennedy attached a weight to each spoke, situated so that five of the weights were always pulling the wheel forward. Kennedy was confident he had succeeded where past attempts had failed. He even filed for a patent in Washington, D.C., and had sent his machine there to be tested.

According to reports that seemed to echo from various portions of the state, the machine ran for 40 days straight and didn’t stop. The Ward County Independent noted, “So exceptional would be the invention if successful that one hesitates in endorsing it, but the demonstration is so convincing that one almost loses his doubt as he sees it plodding away.”

However, the Williston Graphic reported: “Another North Dakota man goes crazy. Invented a perpetual motion machine. What has become of the fellow who filled up the hollow spokes of an old spinning wheel to solve the ‘perpet’ problem.”

The Grand Forks Herald noted that it “looks like the genuine article,” adding that Kennedy, “an unassuming man … without means,” had resigned from his position as a machinist for the Northern Pacific shops so he could watch his invention day and night to see if it might stop.

That is a feat in its own, whether or not the machine actually continued to work past the 40 days. And perhaps another feat was that he did not succumb to the perils of the attempt. After investigating the history of perpetual motion inventors, Kennedy reported that 48 of them had “suicided and 500 went insane.”

“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org.

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