Orffyreus  Bessler's perpetual motion wheel

What is Perpetual Motion?

The Encyclopedia Britannica describes perpetual motion as "the action of a device that, once set in motion, would continue in motion forever, with no additional energy required to maintain it." Such devices are impossible on grounds stated by the first and second laws of thermodynamics.  Or are they?

Perpetual motion, although seemingly impossible to produce, has fascinated both inventors and the general public for hundreds of years. The enormous appeal of perpetual motion resides in the promise of a virtually free and limitless source of power. The fact that perpetual-motion machines cannot work because they violate the laws of thermodynamics has not discouraged inventors and hucksters from attempting to break, circumvent, or ignore those laws.  Did Orffyreus succeed in this endeavor?

Enter Orffyreus (Bessler)

Orffyreus  Bessler's demonstrates his perpetual motion wheel to a crowdOrffyreus, whose real name was Johann Ernst Elias Bessler, was born in Zittav, Saxony in 1680.  At the age of 32, Orffyreus proclaimed he had solved the enigma of perpetual motion and thus begins our perplexing tale of mystique.

The first record we find of Orffyreus’s invention can be found in the Leipzig Acta Eruditorum (1717).  From this work we know that Orffyreus demonstrated a self-moving wheel in the town of Gera.  The wheel, measuring 3 feet in diameter and 4 inches thick, could be started with a slight push and would quickly pick up speed.  The wheel was able to lift up a 7 pound weight hanging by a rope wrapped around the wheel’s axle.  Orffyreus, who was not a very personable man (he was run out of several towns) was dismayed at the people’s lack of interest – so he built a better wheel.


In 1713 at the town of Drashwitz he demonstrated a wheel 5 feet in diameter and 6 inches wide that turned at 50 RPM and lifted a 40 pound weight.  Slowly, news of Orffyreus’s invention began to spread across the country.

Count Karl Becomes Interested

In 1716, Count Karl from the state of Hesse-Cassel, heard of the mystical Orffyreus and brought him to town.  He quickly made Orffyreus the town councilor and allowed him to live in the castle of Weissenstein where Orffyreus could continue his work.

While in Hesse-Cassel, Orffyreus utilized the space of a garden shed to build a 12 foot wheel that was 14 inches thick.  Built in the highest of secrecy, the innards were covered by a oiled cloth so that only the axle were prone to view.  This wheel was put on public display for several months.  The suspicious Orffyreus utilized a guard supplied by the Count Karl (in fact,  Orffyreus was so afraid of someone stealing his invention that he even hired a guard to watch over the guard supplied by Count Karl).  The wheel was examined by hundreds of people who verified that the wheel indeed had no external power source.  But, some still doubted Orffyreus’s honesty.

The People and their Doubts

It was rumored that Orffyreus had once been a watchmaker, a suggestion that may have indeed been true since it is well known that he had previously had several different occupations.  Other clockmakers came forward and proclaimed that they had succeeded in duplicating the device using basic ‘timing’ mechanisms used in clocks.  But, there are no records of any other such devices being built.

One famous mathematician of the day, Claus Wagner, refused to even view the wheel. He calculated that it was impossible and against all laws of physics so there was no point in even considering the possibility.

Orffyreus Describes the Wheel

Orffyreus published a vague paper in 1719 titled The Triumphant Orffyrean Perpetual Motion.  In his brief descriptions, Orffyreus said the wheel depends upon weights that "constitute the perpetual motion itself, since from them is received the universal movement which they must exercise so long as they remain out of the center of gravity". Weights are put in a position so they can ‘never obtain equilibrium’.  Some sketches in the book demonstrated the intricate pattern of weights and balances, a feature that was probably used in the construction of Orffyreus’s wheel (witnesses described hearing weights shifting while the wheel turned).

Is such a contraption possible?  Marquis of Worcester first described the ‘overbalancing wheel’ (presumable before Orffyreus created his invention). He described a wheel with 2 rims, one inside the other. Weights attached by strings in such a manner that weights coming down shift to the outer rim while weights moving upward shift to the inside rim (where they are ‘lighter’).

The Challenge

Orffyreus  Bessler's perpetual motion wheelOn 10/13/1717, the wheel was moved to a large room in the castle.  On 11/12/1717, officials examined the wheel in motion and the doors of the room were sealed tightly shut.  Two weeks later the room was opened – the wheel was still spinning.  To eliminate any remaining doubt, the room was sealed again and reopened on 01/04/1718 where it was still spinning at it’s initial 25 RPM.  Frank Edwards, in a 1956 article about the event (Bessler’s Wonderful Wheel), described the event:

On November 12, everything was ready. Count Karl brought in a distinguished body of investigators: Professor Gravesande of Leyden; Doctor Dietrich of Bohsen; Friedrich Hoffman, described as a famous physician and an authority on mechanics; Christian Wolff, Chancellor of the University of Halle and John Rowley, famed maker of mathematical instruments. 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.

One of the witnesses, a Professor Gravesande, wrote to Sir Issac Newton (who had once stated "The seekers after perpetual motion are trying to get something from nothing.") about what he saw.  He stated, "… hollow wheel, a kind of drum, covered over with canvas to prevent the inside from being seen. I have examined the axles and am firmly persuaded that nothing from without the wheel in the least contributes to its motion".  Apparently Gravesande was convinced that the wheel was the genuine article.

But this public exhibition left out one very important detail – nobody was allowed to view the inner workings of the wheel.  In fact, only one person besides Orffyreus was ever allowed to view the insides of the wheel – Count Karl himself.  Count Karl was regarded as one of the top scientists of his day.  Exactly how it came to be that the Count was allowed to view the wheel is unknown but it is generally believed that Count Karl offered to back Orffyreus financially (and allow him to work on the creation in his castle) on one condition – that he was allowed to view the inner workings of the machine.  The condition that Orffyreus imposed on Count Karl of course, was that he could not disclose what he saw. 

Doubters Become Believers

The Count vaguely described a intricate system of weights and strings:


"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 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."

Orffyreus BesslerCount Karl often remarked that the machine was so simple he was surprised that no one had discovered the secret before.

Now convinced that the dilemma of perpetual motion may have indeed been solved, officials attempted to purchase the wheel from Orffyreus.  When asked how much Orffyreus would take for such a revolutionary device, he replied ‘20,000 pounds’.  This was a huge amount for those days but officials and the Royal Society of London attempted to raise the money believing that such a device would revolutionize the process of energy production.  The deal was ready to conclude when one of the officials, Gravensande, was caught secretly attempting to examine the wheel. This angered Orffyreus who considered this act as doubt of his integrity.  He promptly smashed the fragile wheel to pieces.

In 1745, Bessler was commissioned to create a large windmill project in Furstenburg.  While working on the upper level of the mill, Bessler slipped and fell to his death – he died on November 30, 1745 at the age of 65.  Bessler continued building perpetual motion wheels during the remaining years of his life but his secret, if there indeed was one, died with him.

What else is known about the wheel?

It was known that the wheels were very light and well balanced.

  • Noises were heard where parts had to move over one another.
  • The increase in power (not speed) was directly proportional to its diameter.
  • It was reported that the device acted as a brake if sped too fast.
  • It is well known that weights were installed at the periphery of the wheel and that weights were said to move (swing) inside the wheel.
  • Weights could be heard hitting on the side of the wheel going downward.
  • It is also interesting to note that the wheel had to be started with a push, if it were simply turned it would not start properly.
  • It is also reported that after installing the weights, Bessler did something that looked like pushing down on a spring that made a loud noise when let go.

Are there different types of perpetual motion?

Basically there are three kinds of perpetual-motion devices. The first kind includes those devices that purport to deliver more energy from a falling or turning body than is required to restore those devices to their original state. The most common of these, and the oldest, is the overbalanced wheel. In a typical version, flexible arms are attached to the outer rim of a vertically mounted wheel. An inclined trough is arranged to transfer rolling weights from folded arms on one side of the wheel to fully extended arms on the other. The implicit assumption is that the weights exert more downward force at the ends of extended arms than is required to raise them on the other side, where they are kept closer to the axis of rotation by the folding of the arms. This assumption violates the first law of thermodynamics, also called the law of conservation of energy, which states that the total energy of asystem is always constant.

What about the secret codes?


Orffyreus produced several sketches of a perpetual motion machine.  Each of these sketches shows strange letters or ‘codes’ that nobody has yet to decipher. What we do know, is that he used a encryption code called "atbash’ to turn his name, Bessler, to Orffyreus.  It is highly possible that a similar encryption method was used in his sketches.


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