No. 512.—A Perpetual-Motion Machine.
MY MOTHER WAS not pleased by the electric bill that arrived a few weeks after Ned and I had built our Simple Supercollider (No. 503), and she positively prohibited me from undertaking any more constructions that used up our electricity. Although I strongly disagreed with her reasoning (believing that a thorough education in the physical sciences was well worth the few hundred thousand dollars it might cost in electricity), I was of course an obedient child, and I would never willingly disobey my mother. I therefore turned my attention to finding some means of obtaining electric power that did not involve the Duquesne Light company.
My first thought was naturally of batteries. Ned and I had already discovered how to make a battery from an onion, some beef broth, and a cup of grated Gruyere cheese. No, come to think of it, that was soup, not a battery. But the fundamental principles were doubtless similar. Batteries, however, while they worked well for such small projects as flashlights, telegraphs, and cattle prods, provided far too little power for some of the more advanced projects that Ned and I had already contemplated. For those, we needed a far more powerful source of electricity. In short, we needed a generator.
Building a generator was no great feat. My mother had a large collection of refrigerator magnets, and it was a simple matter to lump them together and spin coils of wire around them to produce an electrical current. But the spinning required a great deal of attention. It was necessary to keep the coils rotating constantly, which was very hard work. Even when Ned and I took turns, it cost us more effort than we were capable of to power our supercollider. It was obvious that we needed some form of motive power to keep our generator spinning.
But what could we use? We thought of hydroelectric power, but I pointed out that my mother was not likely to be any more reasonable about the water bill than she had been about the electrical bill. Wind power proved impractical: both Ned and I were out of breath and nearly turning blue before we could generate enough power just to get the supercollider warmed up.
We experimented with a clockwork mechanism removed from an old Edison phonograph. This gave us good results at first, but we found that the winding was nearly as tiring as spinning the generator directly had been. Steam power worked well until the kettle boiled dry and began to melt on the stove. It seemed as though every form of motive power had unfortunate limitations. What we needed was some sort of machine that, once started, would continue to spin with no further input of energy: in short, a perpetual-motion machine.
Ned warned me that such a device would violate the laws of physics; but I regarded the laws of physics as fundamentally unenforceable, a view I was prepared to argue before the highest court in the land if necessary. We experimented with a number of different configurations involving segmented disks with balls in the segments, but they all disappointed us. An arrangement of hammers on the edge of a wheel got a bit out of hand when we spun it too fast, with results best left undescribed.
Finally, we hit on the idea of powering our generator with an electric motor. Although my mother had prohibited me from tapping into our electricity for any such purpose, our neighbor, old Mrs. Smythe, had an electrical outlet on her back porch that was easy to reach with a 50-foot extension cord. We attached our generator to the electric motor, plugged in the cord, and were pleased to see that the thing worked the very first time. Unlike the clockwork motor, the steam-powered wheel, or the various mechanical contrivances we had tried, our electric motor continued to turn without any input of energy from us, and indeed continued to do so as long as Mrs. Smythe continued to pay her electric bill. We had succeeded in creating perpetual motion, and our electrical generator served us well in many later projects, about some of which you will read later on in this very book.