The concept of perpetual motion is India’s gift

A Letter From Grandpa

By Niranjan Shah

My dear Nikita and Sanjna:

India’s inventions in the field of mathematics and science include numerals, decimal system, algebra, gravitation and speed of light. India also supplied the concept of perpetual motion to European thinking about mechanical power. The term perpetual motion, taken literally, refers to movement that goes on forever. However, the term more commonly refers to any device or system that perpetually (indefinitely) produces more energy than it consumes, resulting in a net output of energy for indefinite time. The origin of this concept has been traced to India’s mathematician-astronomer, Bhaskar II dated 1150. He described a wheel that he claimed would run forever. It was   taken to Europe by Arabs where it not only helped European engineers to generalize their concept of mechanical power,  but also provoked a process  of thinking by analogy that profoundly influenced Western scientific    views. The Indian idea of perpetual motion is in accordance with the Hindu belief in the cyclical and self-renewing nature of all things.

Villard de Honnecourt in 1235 described, in a 33-page manuscript, a perpetual mo-tion machine of the first kind. His idea was based on the changing torque of a series of weights attached with hinges to the rim of a wheel. While ascending they would hang close to the wheel and have little torque, but they would topple after reaching the top and drag the wheel down on descent due to their greater torque during the swing. His device spawned a variety of imitators that continued to refine the basic design. In 1607 Cornelius Drebbel in “Wonder-vondt van de eeuwighe bewegingh” dedicated a Perpetuum motion machine to James I of England. It was described by Heinrich Hiesserle von Chodaw in 1621. Robert Boyle’s self-flowing flask appears to fill itself through siphon action. This is not possible in reality: a siphon requires its “output” to be lower than the “input.” Blaise Pascal introduced a primitive form of roulette and the roulette wheel in the 17th century in his search for a perpetual motion machine. In 1775 the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris issued the statement that the Academy “will no longer accept or deal with proposals concerning perpetual motion.” Johann Bessler (also known as Orffyreus) created a series of claimed perpetual motion machines in the 18th century. In the 19th century, the invention of perpetual motion machines became an obsession for many scientists. Many machines were designed based on electricity, but none of them lived up to their promises. Another early prospector in this field was John Gamgee. Gamgee developed the Zeromotor, a perpetual motion machine of the second kind.

The most commonly contemplated type of perpetual motion machine is a mechanical system which (supposedly) sustains motion indefinitely, despite losing energy to friction and air resistance. A second type of impossible “perpetual motion machine” is one which does not violate conservation of energy, but produces work by spontaneously extracting heat from its surroundings, thereby cooling them down, and converting the heat energy into mechanical work. Such machines are forbidden by the second law of thermodynamics.

A perpetual motion machine of the first kind produces energy from nothing, giving the user unlimited “free” energy. It thus violates the  law of conservation of energy. A perpetual motion machine of the second kind is a machine which spontaneously converts thermal energy into mechanical work. When the thermal energy is equivalent to the work done, this does not violate the law of conservation of energy. However,  it does violate the more subtle second law of thermodynamics. A more obscure category is a perpetual motion machine of the third kind, usually defined as one that completely eliminates friction and other dissipative forces,     to maintain motion forever, due to its mass inertia. It  is widely understood that the laws of physics are incomplete. Outside of pure mathematics, stating that things are absolutely impossible is considered un-scientific by many.

— Grandpa’s blessing

Niranjan Shah, a civil engineer, who pioneered famous high-rise buildings in Baroda, is a broadcaster in India and the USA and a prolific writer. Under “A Letter from Grandpa.” he has been writing since 2002 on India’s historical, philosophical, and literary heritage. He can be reached at

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