The Rolling Ball Web
An Online Compendium of Rolling Ball Sculptures, Clocks, Etc.
By David M. MacMillan et. al.
Since the statement and validation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the impossibility of an energy-creating machine has been clear. Before that time, however there was no clearly articulated reason why such a machine might not work. Not only were attempts at perpetual motion machines numerous, but the development of the mechanisms involved in them played a not insignificant role in the history of technology. Indeed, Professor Derek J. de Solla Price has argued that early proposals for perpetual motion machines were a contributory factor in the development of the mechanical clock around the 13th century.
(The term "perpetual motion" is a poor one, as it logically encompasses not only energy-creating machines but also machines harnessing nonobvious power sources (such as the Cox/Merlin "perpetual motion" clock which ran from barometric pressure changes) and machines with no energy loss (but no energy output.) Still, it is the historically accepted term and will be used here.)
Many proposed perpetual motion machines employed rolling balls. This is not surprising, since a stream of rolling balls provides many of the same properties as a stream of fluid, yet is more easily manageable.
(I am deliberately excluding that class of machine which employed balls suspended on or attached to each other via chains or cords; balls such as these are best thought of simply as weights.)
Ord-Hume terms the "overbalancing wheel" the "oldest fallacy of all" (64) and asserts that all medieval perpetual motion devices were of this type. He traces the history of this type of device through early waterwheels, especially the type known as the "noria," a water wheel which lifted water from a flowing stream while being powered by that same stream.
Similar devices can also be seen in medieval Islamic mercurial clocks.
The basic concept of the overbalancing wheel is the construction of a wheel that is always out of balance, and thus always turning. Overbalancing wheels have various mechanims which are supposed continually to move weights outward on one side of the wheel and inward on the opposite side. Most of these mechanisms involve hinged, weighted levers. Some particularly elegant (but no less unworkable) versions employ rolling balls.
In his Theatrum Machinarum, published in Leipzig beginning in 1724, Jacob Leupold illustrates an overbalancing wheel which uses rolling balls. The following image is taken from Volume ("Tomus") I, of this work, entitled Theatrum Machinarum Generale, Plate VII, Figure IX.
Ord-Hume also illustrates, with a new line drawing on page 64, a similar wheel using curved internal vanes.
The German Georg Andreas Böckler published the Theatrum Machinarum Novum in 1686. According to Ord-Hume, this book discussed several perpetual motion machines, including some using balls. Using an old engraving, Ord-Hume illustrates on page 66 a machine which uses an overbalanced wheel. (This machine drives an archimedean screw to raise water, but the "perpetual motion" part of it is contained entirely within the overbalancing wheel.)
Ord-Hume illustrates, on page 64, a particularly interesting variant from the 19th century by George Lipton. In this version of the overbalancing wheel, the wheel has attached to its periphery eight jointed arms, each capable of bending in one direction but not the other. These arms each carry a ball at their ends. As the wheel rotates, these arms deposit their balls at the top of a short inclined track. Each ball rolls down this track to be picked up by another arm. At the point of drop-off, the arms are draped closely around the wheel, while at the point of pick-up they have fully extended. It was presumed by the inventor that this would cause the balls to impart more energy to the wheel at pick-up than they consumed lifting balls to the drop-off point. I regret that I don't have an illustration of this device that I can use here. It is, as Ord-Hume notes, remarkable.
In a machine intermediate between an overbalanced wheel and an "A-B-A Power Circuit," Dixon Valance Liberton proposed a wheel with hollow spokes in which balls ran. The balls entered the wheel at the hub and rolled out the spokes, powering the wheel. After they exited the wheel, the balls were carried back up to the hub by a conveyer belt (powered by the wheel, of course). Ord-Hume illustrates this machine on page 81.
1664. The German Ulrich von Cranach proposed a perpetual motion machine in which balls descended along the periphery of a wheel (like a water wheel), rolled through a track, and then were carried back to the top using an archimedean screw. The screw, needless to say, was to have been powered by the ball-wheel. Ord-Hume illustrates this machine with an old engraving on page 57.
1790. Dr. Conradus Schiviers proposed a machine in which a stream of balls powers a water wheel like ball-wheel, which in turn powers a bucket-chain which raises the balls back up. Ord-Hume discusses this machine on page 72 and illustrates it (under the name "Doctor Conrad Schwiers") on page 81.
Late 19th Century. On page 75, Ord-Hume illustrates a 19th century machine by an unnamed inventor along the lines of Dr. Conradus Schiviers machine (see above).
[date?] On page 75, Ord-Hume illustrates an undated machine by an unnamed inventor in which a bucket-chain provides the power and a mechanical variant on an archimedean screw returns the balls.
[date?] On page 75, Ord-Hume illustrates a machine which uses two spiral ball tracks of different diameters, pivoted on their axes. The description of the operation of this machine is beyond my skill with words.
Ord-Hume records that Johannes Taisnierus, a Jesuit priest, in 1570 conceived of a device whereby a lodestone (magenet) would draw a ball up an inclined plane, whereupon it would drop down a curved path and return to its starting point. Taisnierus published this device in "a book devoted to Continual Motions" prior to 1579. This device was discussed in Bishop Wilkins' Mathematical Magick of 1648.
Ord-Hume illustrates (p. 86) a curious "magnetic ball treadmill" (this phrase is mine) in which a ball placed inside a vertical wheel is continually attracted by an external magnet. As the ball attempts to roll towards the magnet, it powers the wheel as if it (the wheel) were a treadmill.
The Norwegian artist and inventor Reidar Finsrud is (in early 1997) exhibiting in a gallery in Skaarer, Norway, a purported perpetual motion machine. According to the available online descriptions of this machine, it consists of a circular aluminum track about 25 inches in diameter. On this track rolls, perpetually, a steel ball. The ball is impulsed by magnets that swing in and out of its path under the control of three pendulums and a number of other mechanisms not clearly described.
Online descriptions and photographs of this work are available at:
The maker of this device asserts that it is a perpetual motion machine.
It is not clear to me whether this machine operates from a hidden external power source, as have all other publically displayed perpetual motion machines, or whether it is driven from the ambient mechanical noise in its environment. A rolling ball is very efficient, and as precision clock enthusiasts know a pendulum is very good at responding to environmental noise. If this latter is in fact the case, then the inventor may have deceived even himself and may genuinely believe that this is a perpetual motion device.
Greg Watson has a website devoted to his research in "Direct Magnetic Energy Conversion," or the extraction of the "Zero Point Energy" of the vacuum through "the energy source of ferromagnetism." He is at some pains to distinguish his devices from traditional perpetual motion devices, as he claims simply to be harnessing a nonobvious source of energy. Plans for a device using this "ferromagnetism" to move a ball along a ramp are available on his site at: http://www.microtronics.com.au/~gwatson/smot.html
Ord-Hume illustrates on page 80 what he terms a variant on the "oscillating beam machine." In this machine, a single ball goes back and forth through a hollow tube, tilting it each way as it goes. I'm afraid that I can't follow the intended operation of this machine, even with the illustration. This machine was invented in 1870 by Horace Wickham, Jr. of Chicago.
Finally, in a variant which might or might not be considered "rolling ball," Ord-Hume illustrates on page 79 a device which consists of two balls (which might as well be wheels) coupled by a frame which are caused to oscillate by their motions on a tilting path and a curved path. No inventor or date is given for this device.
On page 164, Ord-Hume reproduces an engraving from The Mechanic's Magazine, London, 1829 which shows a perpetual motion railway. This proposed railway consisted of an undulating track. The car was suspended betwen the rails of this track on two large conical wheels. It is difficult to reconstruct the operation of this railway from the engraving and Ord-Hume's description. It appears from Ord-Hume's description that as the rails descend, they are parallel, and as they ascend, they narrow. This seems, to me, to be backwards. In the engraving, however, the rails appear parallel.
This railway seems to be similar to the physics toy in which a double-cone appears to ascend up a widening, ascending set of rails. At all times, however, the actual center of gravity of the double-cone is descending. There is a variant of this toy in current production which uses a ball rather than a double cone, in which it is the goal of the player to adjust the angles of two rails in order to move the ball as far as possible "uphill."
It is interesting to note that Sir William Congreve, inventor of the Congreve rolling ball clock, invented a perpetual motion device. It was not a rolling ball device, however (it employed sponges and capillary action). Ord-Hume describes and illustrates this machine on page 99.
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