The Mysterious Stranger – Part 1

In 1712, a mysterious stranger stepped into the quiet town of Gera, Germany. The man brought a peculiar machine: a thick wooden wheel, about three feet in diameter, covered in an oiled leather blanket. Through the wrapping emerged a massive axle on which a strong rope was wound. The stranger invited the town’s people to watch the greatest wonder they have ever seen. The man’s name was Orffyreus, and the machine he introduced marked the beginning of one of science’s most fascinating stories.

“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”
Richard Feynman


John Ernest Elias Bessler - a.k.a. Orffyreus
John Ernest Elias Bessler
– a.k.a. Orffyreus

A great crowd gathered to see the new wonder. Orffyreus placed his wheel on a strong wooden base so it could turn while staying in place, much like a bicycle wheel turned upside down. In front of the excited crowed, in the manner of an experienced showman, Orffyreus gave the wooden wheel a slight push, and moved away.

There were loud creeks behind the leather cover that hid the internal mechanism as the wheel started revolving, and some loud bangs. Some people in the crowd may have recognized the sounds: heavy weights falling on a wooden surface. In front of the viewers’ astonished eyes the massive wheel picked up speed, seemingly on its own, with no assistance. The change was somewhat slow at first, but the wheel quickly accelerated and turned about fifty rounds per minute. Without any visible power source, the wheel kept this constant speed.

Orffyreus now started to demonstrate his invention’s usefulness. He wrapped a thick rope around the main axle, and tied the other end to a six pound weight. The machine slowed a bit to forty rounds per minute, but lifted the weight without much effort. The inventor then continued to attach a simple water pump to the wheel’s axis, and this seemed not to disturb the wheel at all.

Some cries of astonishment were heard from the crowd. It was clear to all that the wheel had to be very powerful to be able to lift the weight and pump the water. But where did this power come from? How could the machine do what it did without even a horse or a donkey pulling the wheel? Several people wondered aloud if maybe witchcraft was involved.

Orffyreus repeated this demonstration to hundreds of viewers over the following weeks. The rumor regarding Orffyreus’s perpetual motion machine spread to the neighboring cities. Many people bought tickets to see the show so they could take a look at this new wonder of the world. The criticism, as usual, was quick to follow.

Past experience

Although it was never proven, the scientific establishment felt that perpetual motion was an impossible dream. Intuition clearly showed that every machine, large or small, must have some sort of power source.

Since the idea was born, hundreds of inventors had tried to build self-powered devices, machined with no human hand to turn the handle or without running water to spin the paddle-wheel. Time after time someone announced he had solved this ancient riddle, only to taste the bitter taste of failure. Orffyreus was one of the few who dared to claim success where many had failed.

The scientists had grown skeptical about perpetual motion after so many years of failed attempts, but without solid scientific proof against Orffyreus’s machine it was hard for the critics to justify their skepticism.

Science developed quickly, and with the invention of complex machinery, large ships, and complicated structures it seemed as though engineering and mechanical knowledge had unlimited potential.

Orffyreus flourished in this atmosphere with an invention that triggered both great hopes and bitter arguments. For the peasant in the field, the perpetual motion machine meant he would no longer have to be dependent on farm animals to plow the land and pump the water. The carpenter could use the machine as an unlimited energy source to power his saw, and the blacksmith would not need to manually pump air into the furnace. Everyone wanted the Perpetual Motion Machine.



 Bi-directional Wheel at Kassel, Germany (Source: besslerwheel.com)
Bi-directional Wheel at Kassel,
Germany (Source: besslerwheel.com)

One of the critics who refused to accept Orffyreus’s demonstrations was Günter, a gifted mechanic from Dresden who worked for the King of Poland.

Günter’s mechanical devices were also famous across Europe, and he was one of Orffyreus’s main adversaries. He called him a charlatan and a crook, and demanded solid proof that the new device was indeed a Perpetual Motion Machine.

Orffyreus deliberately created an air of mystery around himself, which greatly contributed to his popularity. His real name was John Ernest Elias Bessler, and he chose the name ‘Orffyreus’ in the following manner: he wrote down the entire alphabet in a circle, and substituted every letter in his real name- Bessler- with the letter thirteen places after it, as 13 was considered to be a mystical number. In this way he came up with the name Orffyre, which he then Latinized to Orffyreus.

Orffyreus never volunteered many details about his past, and those who wondered about it could only guess his age and occupation. He seemed to be in his 30’s, and rumors claimed that he was an expert clock maker, or maybe a genius medical man. Or perhaps he was an engineer. Who knew? He was obviously talented in many fields.

The reason for Günter’s deep hatred of Orffyreus is unclear. Maybe they had crossed paths in the past, or maybe the mechanic felt this criticism helped him keep his high status in the king’s court. It is also possible that he just believed that perpetual motion was impossible, and was determined to prove it for all to see.

Günter and his skeptic friends could not prove that Orffyreus was a crook, but never the less insisted that the mystery surrounding him was just part of the scam. They pointed at the leather blanket that covered the wheel – this cover, they claimed, hid a secret mechanism that provided the machine with power in a deceitful way.

It was here that Orffyreus showed his greatest character flaw. When demonstrating his invention to the public he was a great showman, but off-stage he was very bad-tempered. He was described as temperamental and irresponsible- and those are just descriptions given by his friends…

Orffyreus especially disliked critics and skeptics, and lived in constant fear that they were only trying to gain access to his wheel’s internal mechanism in order to steal his secret.

Orffyreus claimed he had built no less then three hundred wheels before being able to solve the problem of perpetual motion. The leather cover, he said, was meant only to keep his invention secret. He never denied that it was nothing but a clever arrangement of weights, but said that if everyone could see this arrangement- someone will surely copy it. These fears were quite justified: the patent, although not an unfamiliar concept in Orffyreus’s time, was yet to be written down in the books of law. A perpetual motion device was an invention that could make its creator extremely rich.

An Examination In Gera

In order to refute Günter’s allegations, Orffyreus turned to the local nobility and asked for a special committee that would examine his invention. The committee was indeed erected, and it included the Duke and Duchess themselves, along with other local dignitaries.

The committee inspected the wheel’s performance, but the ever suspecting Orffyreus refused to let its members look under the cover. For this secret knowledge to be revealed he demanded a fantastic sum of one hundred thousand Thalers, the local currency.

Orffyreus knew, of course, that he was selling a cat in a sack. In order to convince the worried prospective customers he announced that if the client ever thought he was cheated after buying the secret from him- he is willing to have his head cut off.

After conducting their external examination, the committee members were very impressed. They were unable to provide an alternative explanation for the wheel’s abilities, and announced:

“The long sought after and desired Perpetuum Mobile has been invented and constructed recently, through God’s grace, here in Gera. It is a unique and highly useful machine […]”

There are not many details about the actual tests that the wheel underwent. It is known, however, that the tax on income derived from a Perpetual Motion Machine was very high…Some people claimed that the local administration had an obvious interest to declare Orffyreus’s machine a ‘Perpetuum Mobile’, just so they could then tax him.

But if the local nobles were trying to out-smart Orffyreus, then they themselves were out-smarted. The inventor took a hammer, smashed his wheel to bits and moved on to a different city, far away from the reach of Gera’s tax collectors.

An examination in Draschwitz


 Bi-directional Wheel at Merseburg, Germany (Source: besslerwheel.com)
Bi-directional Wheel at Merseburg,
Germany (Source: besslerwheel.com)

The next town Orffyreus went to was the German city of Draschwitz. He erected a shop there, and built an even bigger wheel then the one he had in Gera. It was over six feet in diameter and was capable of lifting even heavier weights and more water.

Orffyreus continued his demonstrations in front of the people, with much success and cries of astonishments. One of the viewers recalled how he had tried to stop the wheel while it was turning. “The force with which the wheel was revolving almost lifted me from the floor…”, he said in amazement.

But if Orffyreus thought that the Gera committee announcement meant that his critics will let him be, he must have been very disappointed. Günter and his followers did not let him be, on the contrary, their criticism only got louder. One of them, Johannes Burlach, even handed out a drawing between the town’s people, describing why he believed Orffyreus’s wheel was driven by an external spring.

There were critics outside Draschwitz as well. Several clock makers in Germany claimed they could build an identical wheel with simple and well known mechanisms. Klaus Wagner, a well known German mathematician at the time, was unwilling to even look at the invention. He said he had studied the matter carefully, and his calculations prove that perpetual motion is impossible, so there is no point in discussing the matter any further. (It is worth noting, at this point, that flying was also considered impossible back then.)

Orffyreus’s big hope, much like any scientist or engineer in his time, was to be appointed for a formal position in the court of a wealthy noble. This made Günter and Wagner’s allegations even harder to bear.

To refute the accusations and salvage any chance for financial success, Orffyreus again called for an examination in Merseberg, the next town he arrived at.

Twelve of Merseberg’s finest and most respected representatives carefully inspected the wheel. The paranoid inventor again did not let them take a look at the mechanism inside the wheel, even when it was obvious to all his friends that full disclosure is in his best interest.

To check whether a hidden spring is responsible for the wheel’s movement, the inspectors stopped its rotation and then rotated it the other way. To rule out any outside energy source, the whole construction was lifted high into the air and its based examined carefully. No signs of foul play were discovered.

After that inspection, and although they were not given the chance to test the wheel’s inner workings, Merseberg’s men were convinced that Orffyreus had indeed created a Perpetual Motion Machine. They handed him a formal letter that read- “During the inspection, not the slightest indication of imposture or deceit was found, rather everything was found to be right, complete, and without fault.”

This formal endorsement was a blessing for the inventor, restoring some of his lost reputation.

In 1716, four years after he first introduced his invention, luck was at Orffyreus’s side once again. Prince Karl of Hesse-Kassel, a small kingdom in Germany, approached him and offered to be his sponsor. Karl made Orffyreus “Town’s Counselor for Scientific Matters”, offered him a regular salary and a place to build the next wheel- the profits of which he was hoping to earn. And what a profit it could be! Only nations could afford the price Orffyreus was asking for his inventions. Several international bodies started discussing the subject with Orffyreus, among them the Russian Czar and the British Royal Society.


Continue to the second part of Orffyreus’s perpetual motion story.



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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