What if we could build a machine that ran forever without using up any fuel? Such a machine would be a perpetual motion machine, and, sadly, it is impossible. Even so, people have been trying to build them for as long as people have been building machines. Perpetual motion machines appear in many early books about machines, and hundreds have been patented. In this episode I look at how and why these impossible devices have interested so many people for so long. The answer is related to how people see inventors and to a tension between thermodynamics and the technological imagination. In the end, perpetual motion machines also give us a way to think about today’s ecological concerns.
Notes and References:
For an overview of perpetual motion machines, see Arthur W. J. G. Ord-Hume, Perpetual Motion: The History of an Obsession (St. Martin’s Press, 1977). For a collection of primary sources, see Henry Dircks, Perpetuum Mobile, Or, Search for Self-Motive Power, during the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries (London, 1861). For a reflection on the importance of perpetual motion in the early 18th century, see Simon Schaffer, “The Show That Never Ends: Perpetual Motion in the Early Eighteenth Century,” The British Journal for the History of Science 28, no. 2 (June 1, 1995): 157–189.
For more on the history of thermodynamics, see Crosbie Smith, The Science of Energy: A Cultural History of Energy Physics in Victorian Britain (University of Chicago Press, 1999), or
Crosbie W. Smith, “William Thomson and the Creation of Thermodynamics: 1840-1855,” Archive for History of Exact Sciences 16, no. 3 (January 10, 1977): 231–288. For more about the relationship between religious and scientific ideas about a finite world, see Helge s. Kragh, “Cosmology and the Entropic Creation Argument,” Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences 37, no. 2 (March 2007): 369–382.
The term “restless technology” (from which the title of this podcast comes) is from Hans Jonas, “Toward a Philosophy of Technology,” in Hastings Center Report 9/1 (1979): 34-3, and reprinted in Robert C Scharff and Val Dusek, ed., Philosophy of Technology: The Technological Condition : An Anthology (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2003).