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the perpetual motion machine

20 july 2019

I can't remember now why I put Paul Scheerbart's Perpetual Motion Machine on my to-read list. I think I saw the cover in a bookstore and vaguely gleaned that the book was an essay on the cultural history of perpetual motion. Of course when I eventually got hold of the book I was wrong. Scheerbart's "story of an invention" is the tale of how the poet, late in the first decade of the 1900s, designed and supposedly went about patenting the title device.

Which of course cannot exist. The law of the conservation of energy prohibits it, but Scheerbart had little time for "this archmodern 'legislation'," as he termed it (3). Millwheels revolve as long as water flows downstream through them. Why shouldn't the Earth's gravity exert a similar force on a contraption of cogwheels and weights?

Scheerbart reports drawing up 26 designs for his "weight-driven" machine, actually gathering some hardware and attempting to build some of them. He also reports being hopeless at practical mechanics, and failing utterly every time. But he could find nothing theoretically wrong with his designs, or at least he reports the capacity to pick himself up after a failure and critically-think his way toward a more perfect device.

Even the first stab at the Perpetuum Mobile is unfollowable on the face of it. Scheerbart reports conceiving of a spokeless wheel, large enough to accommodate a carriage that people could ride in. Hang the wheel on a bar and balance it with some interlocking wheels on top. Now, if you hang a weight off one end of the thing, it will roll forward, but the weight will never touch the ground, because one of the top wheels will keep pulling it back up. If you are trying to visualize that … well, even a diagram won't help, because the whole thing is self-contradictory, a visual paradox like those of M.C. Escher:

I keep saying "Scheerbart reports," because as the tale unfolds, you can barely believe that anyone would take the project seriously enough even to admit they'd tried a single version of it, let alone 26. Surely the whole book must be a joke – but if it is, Scheerbart never drops the façade of earnestness. His persona resolutely refuses to believe that the dogmas of physics can constrain the imagination.

Like most of us, Scheerbart spends a lot more time thinking about the consequences of his project than he does executing it. His excitement about the pros and cons of perpetual motion is as engaging as his narrative of himself as inventor manqué. Of course, as soon as his machines see daylight, people will stop working and let the machines (which will run themselves) transform the planet and provide endless plenty. Unfortunately, the "perpets" will also make war infinitely more hideous, as well as destroying the world economy as we know it. They will make Scheerbart an inconceivably rich man, and also a hounded pariah. But along the way there will be all sorts of fringe benefits:

I believe that eventually it will be possible to manufacture wafers that provide all our nutrients in concentrated form. … It's always been deplorable that we can't just derive our sustenance from the air. (59)
But with perpetual motion, why not? It seems like this one engineering solution will in turn solve all the others by itself.

Scheerbart derides himself, at times, as a dilettante. He realizes that he would much rather think about the splash his machine will make (and in the process of that thinking, prefigure much of later science fiction) than actually assemble anything. But thinking about things is a decadent and belated activity:

Ludwig II, who had to sail around his artificial lake wearing a costume from Lohengrin—in order to fully experience the feeling of the opera—always seemed frightful to me. (16)
But since he can't be Wagner (in the matter of perpetual motion, nobody could), Scheerbart heads directly toward the condition of mad King Ludwig, the most frightful condition he can think of.

The Perpetual Motion Machine is of course both a diary of madness and a novella in the form of a diary of madness, and it hardly makes sense to ask what parts are fictional and what parts experienced. Scheerbart immerses you in his persona, a self-creation who is to mechanical engineering what Tim Burton's Ed Wood was to movie directing. His book, slim to start with (and copiously illustrated) flies past, and startles as it delights.

Scheerbart, Paul. The Perpetual Motion Machine: The story of an invention. [Das Perpetuum Mobile, 1910.] Translated by Andrew Joron. Cambridge, MA: Wakefield, 2011.