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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
- Professor Gravesande of Leyden,
- Doctor Dietrich of Bohsen,
- Friedrich Hoffman, described as a famous physician and an authority on
- Christian Wolff, Chancellor of the University of Halle
- and John Rowley, famed maker of mathematical instruments.
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
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
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
And what could be more exasperating to orthodox science than the spectacle of
a bumble bee flying around ever-spinning wheel of Johann Bessler?