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The Perpetual Discussion

July 2020

As a patent attorney, I’m occasionally approached by a client with an idea for an apparatus and/or method to achieve perpetual motion. Perpetual motion devices are intended to generate persistent motion with no energy source. They’re expected to run forever. For example, I’ve seen a proposed system for operating an electric car indefinitely without a battery charge, a symbiotic electric motor/generator system that will never run down, and a nuclear generator that the inventor believed would last as long as its electrically conductive wires could be maintained at absolute zero, with zero resistance.

This, of course, is a violation of the First Law of Thermodynamics, which states that energy cannot be created, but may only be converted from one form to another. True, Einstein modified the First Law by proving that energy can be converted from mass, but as far as physicists know, neither mass nor energy can be created ab initio.

When clients who seem normal in every other respect describe their perpetual motion machines, with a view toward obtaining a patent, they invariably grow animated, defensive, and of course, possessive. Curiously, this by itself is not an unusual occurrence in a patent attorney’s office. A certain degree of paranoia is actually healthy for an inventor, since an inventor cannot obtain a patent if the inventive idea was disclosed more than one year before filing the patent application. I often say my clients come in one of two flavors: paranoid and very paranoid. But the inventor who flouts the fundamental laws of physics may have bigger concerns than idea theft.

Sutliff’s Motor

Although the US Patent and Trademark Office is obligated to reject patent applications that violate laws of nature, occasionally patent examiners make mistakes. In the 18th and 19th centuries, inventors tried to work with simple machines—levers, weights, counterweights, wheels, pendulums, magnets, and liquids—to do more work than could normally be performed with the energy provided to the system.

Consider US Patent No. 257,103, issued on April 25, 1882, to John Sutliff Sr. for “Motor.” (See Illustration 1.) A water tank, B, has a pivoting tubular lever, A. The long, hollow arm of the lever, A, terminates in a bulb or hollow vessel, C. The other, shorter arm of the lever, D, is connected by means of a connecting rod, E. Rod E has a cog wheel, F, engaging with a pinion, G, mounted on a shaft, H, which is to be driven. A pivoted box, K, is connected both to the connecting rod, E, and to a pivot point (unlabeled). Disposed on the upper surface of the box, K, is a heavy ball, L, which is free to roll from side to side. The underside of the box, K, is attached to a bellows, M, from which a flexible tube, N, leads to a hollow shaft of tubular lever, A.

In operation, the bulb or vessel, C, is filled with air and naturally floats in the water tank, B. This lowers the shorter arm of the lever, D. Cog wheel, F, and pinion, G, are rotated, while the right side of box, K, is lowered, so the ball, L, rolls to the right side of the box, K, increasing the weight on that right side of the box, K. As one end of the box, K, is lowered, the left side of the box attached to the bellows, M, is raised, whereby all of the air is removed from the bulb, C, and lever tube, A, causing the bulb, C, to sink. The end, D, of the lever, A, is thereby raised, and the wheel, F, which has made a half revolution when the lever, A, and bulb, C, were raised, will now complete its revolution. The box, K, is tilted again, the ball, L, resting on it rolls to the left, compressing the bellows, M, and forcing the air into the bulb, C, and tubular lever, A, causing the same to rise, and so on. In this way, the bulb, C, continues to rise and fall; the ball, L, continues to reciprocate between the extremes of the box, K; the bellows, M, continues to expand and compress; the cog wheel, F, continues to rotate; and the shaft, H, continues to turn in one direction. All of this supposedly goes on for an indefinite time, without applying further energy to the system.

Needless to say, an actual, working motor was never built from this design.

Dean’s Sky Hook

By the 20th century, inventors graduated from mechanical devices to theories for conserving or creating energy that relied on electricity and even nuclear power. On May 19, 1959, once again the US Patent and Trademark Office granted a patent, No. 2,886,976, for a perpetual motion machine. (See Illustration 2.) The inventor was Norman L. Dean and the patent title was “System for Converting Rotary Motion into Unidirectional Motion.” Through an elaborate system of gears, clutches, counterweights and, oh yes, electromagnets, Dean convinced the Patent Office examiner that his sky hook was patentable.

Simply stated, Dean’s invention included:

an oscillatory movement of a freely suspended inertia mass or of a plurality of such masses . . . produced by the rotation of a mass or masses around an axis or axes and by limiting the degrees of freedom of movement of said freely suspended mass or masses, and in which the oscillatory movement of the system produces a continuous series of unidirectional impulses which may be transmitted to a suitable load device or which may act on the carrier of the system itself, without however reacting on or otherwise influencing the frequency or amplitude of the said oscillatory movement.

Dean’s patent is not a testament to the principle that perpetual motion machines work, but that, with enough electromechanical legerdemain, even patent examiners trained in technical fields can be fooled.

The Proof is in the Prototype

The best way to handle an inventor who is convinced that his or her perpetual motion machine will work is for the patent attorney to request a working prototype. The next step is for the attorney not to be surprised when the inventor doesn’t return.

Mark Levy is a registered patent attorney and intellectual property counsel for Block45Legal, LLC in Denver. He has contributed humorous essays to the public radio show “Weekend Radio” for a number of years, and his essays are now available in two paperback books available on Amazon: Trophy Envy and They’re Only Words.

When clients who seem normal in every other respect describe their perpetual motion machines, with a view toward obtaining a patent, they invariably grow animated, defensive, and of course, possessive.