The Perpetual Motion Machine by Paul Scheerbart is a “nonfiction” book from the turn of the 20th century that documents the attempts of German novelist and “optimist” (my term) to create a perpetual motion machine. The book has several portions that are journal entries and several “essay” portions that talk about the effects of the machine. Interspersed in necessary areas are 26 diagrams of his attempts to create the machine.
Needless to say, the man wasn’t successful (though, on the final page, he claims to be), but the book is still an interesting read. The outside presents itself as a more scientific work, but right off the bat, the author describes himself as seeing wheels at all times of the day and how he is driven to attempt to create his machine. There is little sense behind why he keeps pushing on, beyond his relentless optimism that there is a solution. Quickly, though, he dreads a solution, as he is afraid of the military using the invention for war, or he fears that providing infinite energy to the people of the world would destroy civilization, not bring it up. At times, both their being and not being a solution are equally terrible to him.
The machines presented in his diagrams are themselves quite simple and it’s easy to understand why they don’t work if you have a basic understanding of forces. Some have wheels spinning in the wrong direction, but most would require friction to be completely absent. Indeed, all of the models he constructed never did work, but he blames his lack of mechanical ability for this and not the idea that a perpetual motion machine can’t work. He has plumbers and mechanics set up the devices and they don’t work either. Nevertheless, he applies for patents anyway.
The meat of the book, though, is really his essays on what the future would be like with such a machine. He describes tasks that would be difficult even with such machines as “simple”: how easily mountains could be moved and transportation refined, and how all of the energy needed by humans can be provided by the “earthstar”. It’s all a bit crazy. His first attempt at making the machine was caused by the insertion of a “perpetual motion car” in one of his stories, where the cab was hung inside a wheel that drove one on forever. My first thoughts, of course, are how does one stop or get in and out? Neither of these potential problems are addressed, and the idea of the machine is jumped to with gusto. The diagrams do show an evolution from this point, but are all very basic and one loses interest slightly with each new one. Fortunately the book is quite short, and it never gets down to a position that is boring. The essays and diagrams are presented in a manner that prevents the reader from becoming bored, and keeps them in the thought process.
The talk of how cities, money, and war will change because of invention is at its best based on very simple theories and not in any particular fact. But, then again, the machine is impossible so the theories are impossible. He starts with talking about how we will exist on other planets, but decides Earth is good enough. This is repeated when he talks about how the financial institutions will fall, but then he wonders what he’ll have to do to continue existing. He is right to believe that inventing such a machine would make him rich, and perhaps equally right that he would either become a target, or his money would become worthless afterwards. All the musing about this makes it easy to climb into his head and understand what he is trying to say a little bit better. Paul is relatable and empathetic as a narrator and author (at least in this text).
But is the book good? Yes, it’s crazy, but good. Seeing how another mind that doesn’t work very similarly to the “common” idea of a person is fascinating. The idea of perpetual motion and the world that such a device would create is equally fascinating. Even knowing that the man is obviously an eccentric (crazy) and that the idea won’t work doesn’t diminish the book. Looking into another’s thought process is always and enlightening experience, and something can certainly be learned from this book, even if it is far removed from a way to make a perpetual motion machine.