John Collins' workshop, with a poster of Johann Bessler stuck up on the wall
Humans have been fascinated with perpetual motion machines since the Middles Ages. That’s because, in theory, a machine that can work indefinitely without an energy source would change our entire approach to energy as a whole: much less burning stuff, much more of the kind of power that Al Gore’s been banging on about for decades. The only problem is that the theory of perpetual motion violates the first and second laws of thermodynamics, meaning that, technically, it’s physically impossible to achieve.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped people from trying. The most infamous of history’s hopefuls was Johann Bessler, an 18th century German clock-maker who convinced a bunch of people – including Peter the Great, Tsar of Russia – that he’d created a wheel-shaped machine that was capable of constant motion and could perform heavy lifting and drain water. However, he prohibited anyone from looking inside his contraption and refused to divulge his secret for fear of having it stolen. Which doesn’t exactly inspire that much confidence.
Nonetheless, there are still those dedicated to replicating Bessler's apparent success. John Collins – a 69-year-old from Warwickshire – is one of those people. A retired engineer who worked in the RAF and later on Concorde, John has been poring over Bessler’s designs for decades and believes he has unlocked the code. I caught up with him as he nears the completion of what he thinks could be his final design.
John Collins in his workshop
VICE: Hi John. Where did your interest in Bessler come from?
John Collins: When I was 15 I took out an anthology of unsolved mysteries from the library. One of the mysteries was the legend of Bessler’s wheel. It fascinated me for a while, but gradually other things took my attention away.
When I was 30, I found the book again, by chance. The book talks about Bessler’s maid’s testimony that the wheel was driven by hand from outside the room. With my engineering experience I realised that there was no way her account of how it worked could be true. This set me off questioning other ways the project had been discredited.
So Bessler has nearly always been a part of your life?
I often ask myself why I got into engineering. I always had a practical mind, so it seemed logical to go into that field, but at the back of my mind I think I knew it would help me study Bessler.
When did you start trying to build the machine?
I made the first machine out of balsa wood, glue and bearings just after I got married, much to my wife’s chagrin. That was when I was 28, so I’ve been working on the project for 41 years now, mostly intermittently. It was when I set up the website that things began to take off; I received emails from fairly authoritative people who agreed with me that the circumstantial evidence is all there. They said, “There’s only one thing against the idea and that’s the laws of physics. If you can find a way round around it, you’re in.”
You mention that the maid’s testimony can be discounted, but how can you be certain of the evidence that supports the machine working?
Bessler exhibited all four of his wheels and had them tested by several scientists. The main one that proves it for me was the test in which the wheel was locked behind a door with a royal seal and guarded by armed men. It was still spinning when they opened the room 54 days later.
Okay. Are you close to understanding what his secret was?
Bessler left behind a message saying he had burned or buried any drawings that might directly show how his machine works, but, he said, anyone with a penetrating mind and lots of spare time will find the solution. I think I’ve found the solution through pieces of code embedded in one of his drawings, and I’m in the process of building what I hope will be my final machine.
Do you have support from other people?
One of my main supporters is Hal Puthoff, who is Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Austin. He has written to me saying he’s certain I’m onto something, and has funding ready for me when I perfect my design. The problem with Hal is that he has a chequered history. Although he’s an advisor to the US government, he was also funded by the CIA to carry out experiments into remote viewing and other forms of extrasensory perception. From other people’s point of view, that makes him a dubious character.
The plans for Johann Bessler's perpetual motion machine
How do people in your everyday life respond to your work?
My son is an engineer and he laughs at me. My son-in-law is a teacher and he laughs at me. They sent me a card with a hamster wheel on it for one of my birthdays. We use the jokey expression in my house, “W3”. It means “when the wheel works” and gets used whenever someone mentions getting new furniture or a new TV.
Do you have much competition?
There are people all around the world trying like mad to decipher the codes Bessler left for us. Although people have cracked bits and pieces no one has worked out the overall key. Everyone’s working quietly in the background, waiting to jump up with the solution any day.
It seems like the emphasis on secrecy around this machine hasn’t diminished since Bessler was alive.
Everyone says, “I know the answer but I can’t tell you yet because I’ve got to finish the wheel.” Everybody has their pet own theories and aren’t keen to share them, me included. I’m more positive than I’ve ever been that I’m nearly there, but I’m keeping my cards close to my chest. In the pictures I sent you I hid the main parts of the wheel. My wife said, “For god's sake don’t send in pictures of the damn wheel, just in case you’re right.”
Patent offices don't accept claims for perpetual motion machines. But if it was possible, is your design at the point where you'd consider getting a patent?
A lot of people on forums have said I should take out a patent. However, the government can put a D-notice on a patent to prevent you divulging information if it’s against the national interest. People have suggested that, if the wheel works, it could reduce the tax revenue from petrol products and all that sort of thing. The main thing for me is that this thing isn’t buried. The best way to deal with it is to make a video with full disclosure of how it works and disseminate it as widely as possible. Once the genie is out the bottle they can’t stick it back in.
Various attempts at perpetual motion machines
Have you considered whether there might be better ways of approaching the project using modern technology?
A lot of people argue there wouldn’t be enough power in Bessler’s wheel for it to be useful. But, from an engineering perspective, I can see a number of ways of improving the power. I see no reason why you couldn’t have a wheel 32 feet in diameter, for example.
Okay. But, regardless of how big the wheel is, it still has to obey the laws of thermodynamics. How do you think you can overcome this?
It’s hard for me to explain without giving away my design. But the first thing I did is go back to basics and ask why we can’t use gravity to power something, especially given that we use it for weight-driven clocks and water mills. If you look at the planet Earth, without life the only way nature can move anything other than with heat variation is by gravity. It’s what I call an enabler. If we can find a way of configuring weights so that they fall and keep the wheel continually overbalanced you’ve got the solution, but I sense incredulity in your voice.
I’m just aware of what a massive discovery perpetual motion would be. It would turn science on its head.
When people see how this works they will realise that it requires no changes to the laws of physics other than the contention that gravity can’t be used as a source of power. The only thing I will say is that when you see it, you'll wonder how you never thought of it. The basic concept is very simple, but the leverage mechanism is ingenious.
I look forward to it. Good luck, John!
EDIT: The question about patenting John's design was changed to reflect the fact that it is impossible to patent a perpetual motion machine.
More scientific stuff: