Bessler's Wonderful Wheel
by Frank Edwards - 1956

(Note : Bessler and Orffyreus are the same person!)

Sir Isaac Newton once observed: "The seekers after perpetual motion are trying to get something from nothing."

Of the legions who have pursued this mechanical chimera, the case of the irascible Johann Bessler and his remarkable wheel stands alone. He was either a genius without peer or he was a mountebank without equal. Johann was one or the other - but which?

Scientists of his own day were sharply divided on the question - but then they had to deal not only with his invention but with Johann himself, and that was no easy task. Let us examine the record.

A native of Zittau, Saxony, Bessler was thirty-two years of age when he exhibited his first "self-moving wheel" at Gera in 1712. It was a wheel about three feet in diameter and four inches thick, capable (according to witnesses) of keeping itself in motion for an indefinite period without visible assistance.

Once the wheel was started with a gentle push, it would accelerate to about twenty-six revolutions per minute and would maintain that speed without further assistance.

Furthermore, the wheel could be geared to lift small weights by means of a rope curled around its axle.

When the learned men came to observe his creation, Bessler took the position that they were enemies per se and he treated them as such. Opinionated, contentious and belligerent, Bessler did not help his cause by his relations with the visitors. It is small wonder that most of them went away with their questions unanswered, mumbling that the inventor was a fraud and his wheel a fake.

The following year be brought to Leipzig another and larger version of his wheel. This second model was six feet in diameter and a foot thick, covered with heavy cloth, which was oiled and tightly stretched from rim to rim. Like its predecessor, the wheel needed but a slight shove to set it in motion.

Once under way, it quickly picked up speed until it reached its maximum velocity of about twenty-six turns per minute, which it could apparently maintain indefinitely, unassisted.

Observers agreed on one thing: as the wheel turned, they could hear weights of some sort tumbling about inside it, concealed by the heavy oiled cloth stretched drum-tight from rim to rim.

The exhibition at Leipzig was successful in that the wheel performed flawlessly; otherwise, it was merely another battleground for Bessler. He soon found himself embroiled in bitter arguments with those who doubted the truth of his claims for his invention.

In an effort to end these detractions once and for all, Bessler offered to exhibit his machine to a group of qualified citizens, and on October 31, 1715, a group of eleven such men witnessed the wheel in action and submitted it to certain tests of their own devising.

In December they issued a report of their findings in which they unanimously concurred that " ...the machine of Johann Bessler... is a true perpetual motion...having the property to move right and left, being easily moved, but requiring great effort to stay its movement; with the power of raising ... a box of stones 70 pounds, 8 ells high perpendicularly ... ".

Bessler's antagonists were in no wise deterred by this declaration of the investigating body; instead, they heaped fresh ridicule on both Bessler and those who signed the report. Meanwhile the strange wheel continued to spin day and night at its accustomed rate, of twenty-six revolutions per minute.

It was at this stage of his hectic career that Johann Bessler began signing his name "Orffyreus" for some reason known only to himself. And it was also at this time (1716) that Orffyreus attracted the attention of Count Karl, Landgrave of Hesse-Cassel, one of the tiny quasi-independent states which were numerous in that stage of Germany's development.

Karl had both money and prestige - Orffyreus had neither. Karl's first move was to put the eccentric inventor into a paying position as Town Councillor, a job which gave him an income on which he could live decently and a place to call home.

It was under the patronage of Count Karl of Hesse-Cassel that Orffyreus built his last and largest wheel. He constructed the thing in a gardener's shed on the ground of Weissenstein castle - where it could be kept under lock and key and guarded by one of the Count's men for fear that someone would see how it was built.

Being suspicious even of his friends, Orffyreus kept a guard himself to guard the guard posted by the Count. The wheel was beginning to develop wheels within wheels, one might say.

A perpetual motion wheel in our own day and age would be little more than an interesting curiosity, of course, but in the early days of the eighteenth century it assumed imposing proportions. The reason for this becomes apparent when we consider the machine in the context of its time.

In those days the prime source of power was that of muscles, human or animal. Water power was being used where it was available, but it was generally undependable. The search was for some new source of power which could turn the spindles and the wheels of the little factories.

The man who developed such a power source would be much in demand; if he discovered a means of extracting usable energy from a free and endless source, perpetual motion, he would be providing the answer to one of the major problems of the era.

The wondrous wheel of Orffyreus purportedly fulfilled those requirements. It could be started easily, it developed increased momentum without further assistance, and it could be used for such tasks as lifting baskets of stones without materially affecting its over-all performance. It was admittedly a promising development - if it was not a fraud, as some claimed.

The detractors of the machine were many and vociferous. There was the mathematician in Leipzig, one Claus Wagner, who had never seen the wheel and who steadfastly refused to see it. Why? Because he had calculated by his mathematical tables that such a thing was preposterous, contradictory to the laws of nature, and it could not exist - according to his figures.

Clockmakers came forward for their brief moment in the spotlight to announce that they could duplicate the performance of the wheel of Orffyreus by cleverly concealed springs and gears. Whether they could do what they claimed will never be known, for not one of the lot ever produced a single example to support his contentions.

Badgered by such characters, the difficult side of Orffyreus's character became worse, if such a thing was possible. He fought with everyone around him with the possible exception of the Count; he became so disagreeable that the guards at the room where the device was stored accepted duty there as a form of punishment. If the machine really worked ...

Count Karl pressed Orffyreus for an answer in the form of a demonstration which would stifle criticism once and for all; or, if it failed in that, one which would bring to an end the Count's lengthy and costly sponsorship of the device. People were beginning to wonder if Count Karl had lost his mind, and it was high time that he proved his own case as well as that of the inventor.

In October of 1717, the Count induced the inventor to transfer the new and bulkier wheel to a room in the castle of Wessenstein which was large enough to permit the device to be set up with ample space around it. This time there must be no excuse for critics to charge that the axle of the wheel touched the wall and was turned from another room by a cord.

On November 12, everything was ready. Count Karl brought in a distinguished body of investigators:

There were others of less renown, all handpicked to present a broad front of talent and integrity.

They entered a large room (according to their reports) where they found a huge cloth-covered wheel sitting in the center of the room. Their measurements determined that it was twelve feet in diameter, slightly more than fourteen inches in thickness - and it turned on an iron shaft about three-quarters of an inch in diameter.

The wheel itself was described as lightly constructed wood. Like its predecessors, Orffyreus had screened its innards by covering the space from hub to rim with tightly-drawn oiled cloth.

Having determined the physical dimensions of the device, the investigators proceeded to experiment with its abilities. Baron Fisher was elected to set it in motion, which he found extremely easy.

Just a push with one hand and the huge wheel began to revolve ... slowly at first, then faster and faster, until it reached its maximum speed of twenty- six revolutions per minute.

After several experiments had been conducted, during which the wheel had supplied power to perform small tasks, the body of learned investigators carefully examined the room itself, sealing and locking every possible place of egress or entrance. Then they left the room and locked the door behind them, leaving the wheel spinning merrily at its usual rate.

To make certain that the lock on the door was untouched during their absence, they sealed it with wax bearing the imprint of their several devices which they had brought for that purpose.

Fourteen days later, says the committee report, when they broke the seals and opened the door, they found the big wheel revolving just as they had left it. And again, on January 4 of 1718, they returned to the sealed room. There was the big wheel, still spinning its defiance of the accepted determinations of science.

The entire committee expressed the opinion that there was no fraud involved in the operation of the wheel. They were convinced that they had seen and tested a genuine perpetual motion device.

Writing to Sir Isaac Newton, Professor Gravesande said "...I have examined these axles and am firmly persuaded that nothing from without the wheel in the least contributes to its motion."

If it worked, as the investigators agreed that it did work - then HOW DID IT WORK?

Orffyreus was insanely fearful that someone would steal the secret of his remarkable wheel, cheating him of his rights. Through his friend Count Karl, he offered to reveal the inner mechanism to anyone for the sum of twenty thousand pounds, that amount to be held in trust by the Count while the buyers duplicated the machine to assure themselves that they had a genuine perpetual motion device. No one came forward with the money to take up the proposal. Knowing of the precarious state of Count Karl's finances, perhaps they did not care to entrust him with such a sum.

The silence that greeted his proposal infuriated Orffyreus. He brooded. The Count feared that he would destroy himself and had an attendant keeping close watch over his eccentric protege.

By some undisclosed piece of legerdemain the Count induced the inventor to let him see the inside of the wheel, and so far as is known, this was the only instance in which anyone other than Orffyreus ever glimpsed the workings of the device.

When the oiled cloth was stripped away, said Count Karl, he found himself gazing upon a very simple arrangement of weights and levers. Orffyreus explained that he had conceived a system whereby the weights on one side of the wheel were farther from the axle than the weights on the other side of the wheel, creating an imbalance which caused the wheel to move.

The secret, if there was a secret, lay in the ingenious manner in which the weights on the ascending side of the wheel were prevented from following their normal path next to the rim.

Count Karl said that these weights were blocked by small pegs which swung back out of the way as the weight passed the zenith.

image from Boruts' Website

The Count prudently hastened back to his quarters and wrote an account of what he had seen.

The inventor went back to his brooding. He was convinced that he had solved the classic riddle of perpetual motion, only to be spurned by those who should be rewarding him for his genius.

And those investigators! Peering under the axles, placing their ears against the base to listen for concealed springs as though he, Orffyreus, had to resort to fraud. Damn them all!

Sometime during the night his mental frothings bubbled over. Orffyreus let himself into the room where his wheel was stored, and with a few blows from an axe, he shattered the flimsy thing.

In that moment of unrestrained rage he seems to have shattered himself, too. Remorsefully he told the Count what he had done and promised to build another wheel as good or better than the one he had just destroyed. But it never happened.

For a few months he puttered away in his shop at the gardener's house. He quarreled with the Count. And when the wreckage of his wheel was destroyed by fire, the inventor and his patron reached a parting of the ways. Orffyreus became an embittered wanderer who died in November of 1745.

Did he really have a perpetual motion machine?

On the basis of Count Karl's description of what he saw, it seems that Johann Bessler's creation was merely another example of the unbalanced wheel, one of the oldest of all methods by which ingenious fellows have sought to attain perpetual motion.

Scientists say they can explain why the unbalanced wheel cannot turn itself. Let us remember that these same scientists can also prove that a bumble bee cannot fly.

And what could be more exasperating to orthodox science than the spectacle of a bumble bee flying around ever-spinning wheel of Johann Bessler?

Bessler/Orffyreus Perpetual (Self-Running) Motion Book

Best Wheel Design yet! - 12/19/97