Orffyreus and Leibniz – Part 2

Orffyreus and Leibniz – Part 2
One of the most important factors that persuaded Prince Karl to invest in Orffyreus was the opinion of Wilhelm Leibniz, one of Europe’s leading scientists in the 18th century who was a well known genius. Leibniz is credited with inventing calculus in parallel with Newton. He heard of Orffyreus’s Perpetual Motion Machine from friends who had attended one of the demonstrations in Draschwitz and the machine immediately provoked his curiosity.

The first part of Orffyreus’s amazing “Perpetual Motion Machine” can be found here.   



“I can not believe that someone invented a Perpetual Motion Machine,” Leibniz wrote, “Since this goes against the laws of nature. I suspect that air pressure is behind its motion. But if the machine actually works as described…it is of great interest to me.”

In a following letters exchange Leibniz asked his friends for more details on the machine, and finally went to see it. He inspected the wheel for two hours and talked with Orffyreus at length. He was unconvinced that the device was a real Perpetual Motion Machine but was deeply impressed with its capabilities, even if it was powered by an alternative source.

Following his visit he sent several letters to German princes and noblemen, and asked them to consider purchasing the machine, or at least paying Orffyreus a monthly salary to allow him to concentrate on his work.

“Orffyreus is my friend,” wrote Leibniz. When Leibniz, a man who corresponded with six hundred of Europe’s top scientists and who is responsible for the Integral sign () is written writes that about an inventor, his words  do not go unnoticed.

Here too, Orffyreus’s bad character almost destroyed his great relationship  with one of the world’s greatest scholars. At some point, Leibniz wrote to Orffyreus asking to examine the wheel’s hidden mechanism. Paranoia again held Orffyreus in its iron grip. He refused profusely, and accused Leibniz of trying to steal his secret.

Luckily for Orffyreus, there were those in his circle of friends who realized that offending Leibniz would be a terrible mistake and rushed to pour water over the fire before it could spread. When he understood the consequences of his words, Orffyreus quickly apologized to the great mathematician. He still demanded money for the privilege of peering into the wheel’s interior, even from Leibniz. The scientist turned this offer down.

A Rare Peek


 Prince Karl of Hesse-Kassel
Prince Karl of Hesse-Kassel

Despite Leibniz’s warm words, Prince Karl was still weary of deception. He agreed to the patronage, on the condition that he will be allowed to look at the wheel’s inner mechanism.

Orffyreus was in no financial state to refuse. After some bargaining with the suspicious inventor, Prince Karl agreed to pay him four thousand Thalers in exchange for the privilege of peeking through the leather cover. He also gave his word of honor that he will tell no one what he saw. 

The prince inspected the invention, and became convinced that no deception was involved. It is unclear if Karl was knowledgeable in mechanics or physics. Some of the rulers in his time (similarly to some politicians today) were not educated people. Still, Karl wrote in his diary that he was surprised by the invention’s simplicity. “Even a carpenter’s apprentice can build such a simple device. I’m surprised no one had thought about this before.” But the honest prince kept his word and took the secrets of the wheel’s inner workings to his grave.

Orffyreus was given a workshop in Castle Weissenstein and started working on the biggest wheel he had ever built, some 4 meters across. Prince Karl stationed a guard at the room’s entrance, to keep the curious public out. Orffyreus, suspicious as ever, placed his own guards to watch over the prince’s guards. All of the guards, however, thought that working near the paranoid and nervous inventor was a nightmare, and the workshop guarding shifts were sometimes given as punishments to guards who had misbehaved.

At last, the big moment arrived and the new machine was ready. The crowds swarmed to the castle to see this wonder. Some of the visitors left the demonstration amazed and were convinced they had just witnessed a great wonder. Others thought that they were victims of some sort of cunning trickery.

There was great pressure on Prince Karl to prove this invention was authentic- his name and financial future depended on it. He declared the ultimate examination: the inspection that will remove any suspicions of wrong doing once and for all, in order to prove to the whole world that this wheel is in fact a Perpetual Motion Machine.

A Crucial Examination

Orffyreus’s wheel (Source: besslerwheel.com)
Orffyreus’s wheel
(Source: besslerwheel.com)

Prince Karl’s examination committee decided to test how long Orffyreus’s device could operate without an external source of energy. The concept of ‘energy balance’- measuring how much energy entered the system versus how much energy left it- was still unknown. Theoretically, a Perpetual Motion Machine should be able to continue working forever. Still, the committee members were highly suspicious of Orffyreus, and weary of deceit.

All of the members were honest and respectable gentlemen. Some of them were excellent men of science, such as Johann Christian Wolff, a well known professor who was also the personal advisor of Czar Peter the Great in matters of science and technology.

After some debate it was decided that the test will be carried out in the following fashion: the wheel will be dismantled and transferred to a large room in the castle, a room with thick, strong walls and no windows. The machine will be placed in the center of the room, as far away from the walls as possible. A committee member will give the wheel its initial push and then everybody, Orffyreus included, will leave the room. The heavy iron door will be locked, and the lock covered with wax, on which Prince Karl will stamp his own personal royal seal, as well as the seals of the other committee members. This will make opening the door impossible without having to fake all the seals. Prince Karl placed a guard near the door, just in case.

Two weeks later, the committee decided spontaneously and without consulting the inventor, to check the wheel. The unbroken seals were checked, and the door was opened. The wheel was still turning at the same speed it had two weeks before.

They closed the door again, this time for well over a month. When the wheel was again checked, the result was the same. The committee members were very impressed. Despite all of their best efforts, they could not find even a hint of deception. Prince Karl was overjoyed from this success and made sure the examination’s results became widely known.

 ‘sGravesande’s Dilemma


 Willem ‘sGravesande
Willem ‘sGravesande

Still, the scientific community refused to embrace Orffyreus. Scientists, especially from the natural sciences, are often unwilling to acknowledge an experiment they themselves cannot reproduce, or, at the very least, get an objective third party to confirm. Although he claimed this was necessary in order to prevent competition, Orffyreus’s flat refusal to provide the essential details of his invention made it obvious that no one could reproduce his device. It is also reasonable to assume that his incredibly eccentric and unfriendly behavior contributed to his isolation.

Prince Karl, therefore, needed as many voices in his favor as he could get. In 1721 he heard of Willem ‘sGravesande, a Professor of Mathematics who was a friend of the famous scientist Isaac Newton.  ‘sGravesande was one of the major supporters of Newton’s theories in Europe. ‘sGravesande’s name was respected across the continent and especially in London, where he frequently conducted demonstrations and public experiments and was even elected as a member of the British Royal Society.

Karl invited ‘sGravesande to visit his castle, and asked him to examine Orffyreus’s wheel with his own eyes. The two approached the inventor, but the Prince was careful not to reveal his guest’s true identity.

‘sGravesande asked many questions, and Orffyreus demonstrated the machine’s abilities to him. The visitor’s tough questions and thorough investigation made Orffyreus suspicious that he was trying to trick him into disclosing the device’s secret mechanism.

At one point, the Professor tore a small hole in the wheel’s cover and sprinkled spicy pepper into it. Since he did not hear any sneezes from inside the machine, ‘sGravesande concluded that no one was hiding in it. After his careful inspection of the wheel, he was deeply impressed by it.


 Sir Isaac Newton - wasn't interested?
Sir Isaac Newton
- wasn’t interested?

He felt a strong urge to share his conclusions with Newton.  ‘sGravesande faced a difficult dilemma. As a man of science and a respectable professor, he had an obligation to maintain his professional reputation. It was hard for him to speak out in favor of an invention that many of his fellow scientists regarded as nothing more then a scam. However, as an experimenter and investigator, he was unable to ignore the fantastic machine that he had examined in every conceivable way (without uncovering the internal mechanism, of course.)

It is important to note that in Willem ‘sGravesande’s time, perpetual motion was still an unsettled  scientific matter. It was considered unlikely that perpetual motion is possible, but it was not considered to be completely impossible. This dilemma is apparent in the letter ‘sGravesande sent to Newton:

“You will not be displeased, I presume, with a circumstantial account of my examination. I send you therefore the details of the most particular circumstances observable on an exterior view of the machine […]

For my part, however, though I must confess my abilities inferior to those of many who have given demonstration of this impossibility – yet I will communicate to you the real sentiments with which I entered on examination of this machine… It seemed to me that Leibniz was wrong in laying down the impossibility of perpetual motion as an axiom. Notwithstanding this persuasion, however, I was far from believing Orffyreus capable of making such a discovery, looking upon it as an invention not to be made (if ever) till after many other previous discoveries. But since I have examined the machine, it is impossible for me to sufficiently express my astonishment.

The inventor has a turn for mechanics, but is far from being a profound mathematician, and yet his machine has something in it prodigiously astounding, even though it should be an imposition. […]

This motion it preserved some time ago for two months, in an apartment of the castle; the doors and windows of which were locked and sealed, so that there was no possibility of fraud.”

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz
Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz

Newton, as far as we know, never answered ‘sGravesande’s letter. Maybe he never even read it. It is highly probable, however, that Newton simply rejected the idea and ignored the letter. His well known view was that those who seek perpetual motion are “trying to get something out of nothing”. He was also known to have little or no patience to what he thought was nonsense.

But Orffyreus, as I have already mentioned, did not know the true identity of his visitor. ‘sGravesande’s questions and prying brought his paranoia to new heights. In an unbelievable act of stupidity, after three independent committees inspected his invention and concluded that he had actually achieved the impossible, with crowds of people standing in line to buy tickets to see his wheel, when he was at the peak of his career and fame, Orffyreus took a hammer, and in the grip of a hysterical surge of rage, smashed his invention to pieces.

The guards at the door watched him helplessly, and all they could do was run and inform Prince Karl of what had just happened. Orffyreus took a brush and wrote on the wall that it was ‘sGravesande’s prying that made him destroy his machine.

This strange act was a miserable decision with unfortunate implications on Orffyreus’s relations with the scientific community. No one believed he had destroyed the machine because of ‘sGravesande’s questioning. It seemed that only Karl still trusted him. The capricious inventor apologized to his employer and promised to build a new wheel, even bigger then its predecessor.

The Maid’s Testimony

Orffyreus’s critics never stopped irritating and slandering him. Letters to the press and to the authorities, insulting flyers, everything was tried and done. One of his critics wrote:

“First, Orffyreus is an idiot. Second, it is inconceivable that an idiot discovered what a large number of smart men sought after without success. Third, I do not believe in the impossible…”

In 1729, Orffyreus’s critics were finally lucky. A maid who had worked for Orffyreus for twenty years suddenly came to the local authorities. She told them that she, together with the inventor’s wife and brother, were the ones who turned the wheels from adjacent rooms. According to her descriptions, the wheels were powered by a small lever that was connected to the machines by a thin metal wire. Orffyreus signaled to them during the demonstrations, using coughs, spitting, whistles, and other hidden signs, when to turn the direction of rotation or the wheel’s speed. She had decided to confess, she said, because Orffyreus refused to pay her large sums of money he had promised her.

The maid’s testimony did not persuade everyone. It was claimed that Orffyreus’s enemies convinced her to lie about him. ‘sGravesande himself still claimed he believed Orffyreus, maybe to prevent his own embarrassment.

But Orffyreus’s reputation was badly hurt. No one considered paying him huge sums of money for his Perpetual Motion Machine. In a misfortunate turn of events, Prince Karl, his biggest supporter and sponsor, died a year later. In just over a year, Orffyreus’s whole world collapsed around him.

Orffyreus’s Death

Little is known about Orffyreus after that. He continued to build strange machines, but nothing that had the impact of his earlier inventions.

On the 30th of November, 1745, while he was constructing a new wind-mill for a small town in Germany, Orffyreus suddenly slipped from one of the scaffoldings and fell to his death. He was sixty five when he died.

He took his secrets to his grave, since the only document he left behind was a book he wrote in 1719, which included only vague descriptions of his machines – probably on purpose. Even the drawings in his books offer no clues.

Orffyreus’s present day supporters- and there are many of them- are desperately searching his writings for hints on the secret that Orffyreus refused to reveal. Most of the researchers are concentrating on deciphering hidden messages that may or may not be buried in his book.

Orffyreus’s biographers state that he learned Hebrew, and possibly the Kabala secrets, from Jewish rabbis he knew in Germany. They theorize that the book contains pointers to verses from the Torah that will shed light on the wheel’s secret.

Perpetual Motion, we know today, is impossible. Still, Orffyreus’s demonstrations were amazing, and he left many scientists baffled. How did he do what he did? This is indeed a secret worth uncovering.

About the author:  Ran Levi has a B.Sc in Electrical Engineering from the Technion- Israel Institute of Technology. He has published a book about the history of Perpetual Motion Machines, and writes about various scientific and technological issues.

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About the author

Ran Levi

Ran has a B.Sc in Electrical Engineering from the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology. He haspublished a book about the history of Perpetual Motion Machines, and writes aboutvarious scientific and technological issues. Ran also has a Podcast (in Hebrew ) named 'making history', about the history of science and technology.

View all articles by Ran Levi