Volume X, No. 4, Summer 1983



by Melanie Stubblefield

"My grandfather made my perpetual motion machine over a hundred years ago," said Russell Fohn while running his hand over the smooth walnut surface of the strange looking machine handed down in his family. "According to family legend, it ran for forty-eight hours without stopping. Before he died, my grandfather told his children how to finish the machine, but they never did because they were superstitious. It was said that if a person finished the machine, that person would die. Granddad took the secret to the grave with him. When I was a little boy, I would hear them talking about it."

The history of the perpetual motion machine dates back to the early middle ages when philosophers became fascinated with the idea of perpetuum mobile, or an everlasting moving thing. Since then scientists, inventors, and tinkerers have tried to create a machine that would move continually powered by itself. Perpetual motion machines were especially popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Inventors experimented with perpetual motion for the same reason we are experimenting with solar power today, costless energy. But building one of these machines and actually making it work baffled many.

Inventors tried many energy sources to power their machines. A weighted perpetual motion machine was invented in the 1920s using jointed spokes and heavy balls to radiate from a horizontal shaft. As the spokes swing down, the weights would drop pulling the giant wheel around. Other machines used vacuums, levers and balls, buoyancy of water and magnets and electrical currents for power.

All of these were hopeful sources for easy energy, but all failed. No efficient perpetual motion machine was ever invented, and frustrated inventors looked for other means of energy.

"Granddad probably made the machine when he lived in Camden County, but he might have gotten the idea in France," said Russell, "He came over from Paris, France, when my dad was five years old, and my dad would be over a hundred years old now. Granddad was a carpenter in Paris.

"Granddad was one of the best carpenters in this area, I hear. The machine is the only piece of furniture of his that I have, but he built a house in Camdenton with walls fifteen inches thick. He made his own doors for that house, and they're still in as good a shape as this machine.

"My dad went over to my grandfather's place and got the machine out of the barn loft about fifty years ago. No one in my family knows much about the machine. My father probably would have known a lot about it, but he never did anything with it, for they were superstitious people. When I was a boy, I didn't pay no attention to things like the machine, but I've told my children everything I know about it.


"Before my parents died, they gave the machine to me. Nothing has been changed on it. This was the way it was when I got it. We refinished it when we first got it, just cleaned it up and varnished it. That was thirty years ago. It's all still tight.

"The machine is made entirely out of walnut. Granddad didn't use screws or anything to put it together. He may have used a drawknife to smooth the wood. I haven't ever weighed it, but it's not very heavy."

The machine stands a little over four feet high. It has a table like bottom which forms the base for four supports with a large spoked wheel suspended between them. Most of the wood is joined by wooden pegs, and mortise and tenon joints. The wheel turns smoothly on a wooden axle."Granddad got this wheel balanced out, so if you get it to a certain place, it will take off. No telling how many hours he worked on it to get it balanced," said Russell. With a slight push, the wheel turns smoothly for five or six rotations by itself.

Russell Fohn shows Melanie Stubblefield, BITTERSWEET staff member, his perpetual motion machine that his grandfather built. This machine ran for forty-eight hours without stopping.

The detailed machine is a mystery to many. The cogs in the center of the wheel supposedly operated a conveyor belt. Notice the smoothness and perfection of the wood. Photos by Jeff Zander.

A wooden cog wheel on the same axle as the large wheel probably turned some sort of conveyor belt. The rim of the wheel has cups that might have caught connected marbles for forward movement. "I've always understood that it run with a marble and gold chain," Russell said. "If you notice these cups, one would turn one way and the next one would turn the other. It would jig-jog, and I guess that's what would keep it going. It had a conveyor someway to keep the marbles going. The gold chain is what would hold it and run the conveyor belt.

"Mine was the only perpetual motion machine I had ever heard of. People coming into my store always ask me if it is a spinning wheel. After I tell them the story, they agree that its PoSsibilities will always remain a secret."

Although Russell's machine does not work, one cannot help but admire its beauty and craftmanship. Part of the fascination is looking at the machine and speculating how it might work after hearing the bit of folklore that Russell Fohn knows about it.


Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.

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