Since the dawn of time human beings have moved forward through resourcefulness, invention and technology. It is what brought us up from mere apes cowering in the dark, to the advance being we are today, travelling to the stars and unravelling the secrets of the universe. Discovery and innovation have driven us to be the most advanced species the world has ever known, and all of this comes from the discoveries and inventions of those who have managed to unfurl the layers from what we do not understand. But discovery and invention are hard. It takes a lot of work and trial and error, and so for as long as amazing discoveries have been around there have been those who have just tried to fake it. Here are some of the boldest, cunning, and most baffling technological hoaxes from the annals of history.
A very early hoax involved a type of robot before robots were ever even really a thing. In 1769, a Hungarian nobleman by the name of Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen built what he claimed to be a fully-functioning, chess playing robot, which at the time were typically referred to as "automatons." It appeared as a large wooden box filled with gears, cogs, wires, and other fancy looking technological stuff, and atop this box sat a wooden mannequin dressed in Turkish clothes for some reason, and with maneuverable arms and hands. There was a large handle on the side, which Kempelen would dramatically wind up to activate the automaton, after which it would creepily spring to life to play chess. It had dexterous hands, could pick up and move chess pieces on its own, and not only that, it was touted as having the ability to “think,” planning strategies and studying and reacting to its opponent’s moves.
When Kempelen first unveiled his creation it caused a major stir, as no one had ever seen any automaton that could do anything other than merely mimic humans and animals at the most rudimentary level. By all appearances, this was an actual thinking robot able to interact with an opponent, which was mind-blowing at the time. Kempelen then toured all over the place giving demonstrations of his wondrous machine. A typical show would be for him to crank up the robot, which was affectionately nicknamed “The Turk,” and then invite someone from the audience to come up and try to play chess with it, and they almost always lost to it. He was always very willing to show that it was not an illusion, opening the side of the machine to allow spectators to see that there was not a man hidden inside, and no one could quite figure out how it all worked. Before long, these demonstrations were immensely popular, bringing in nobles, aristocrats, and even Benjamin Franklin, who lost a chess match to it. Everyone was held in awe.
These demonstrations would go on until 1790, when Kempelen would have his creation taken apart and put into storage. Upon his death in 1805, it was sold by his family to a German by the name of Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, who put it back together and began touring it around America. As it began to gain more fame, speculation on how it worked began doing the rounds again, with many skeptics surmising that there had to somehow be a person, maybe even a dwarf, hidden within the box or even the wooden Turk itself. It would not be until 1837 that the secret would finally come out, when those involved with the scam came forward to tell how it was done. It would turn out that various chess masters had been hidden inside the box as many had suspected, and that a series of sliding panels, mirrors, and a rolling chair had been used to conceal them while audience members inspected the inside of the box. It was then just a matter of using magnetic pieces over the hidden player’s head to gage where the opponent had moved, and then use a system of levers to move his own pieces. In the end, it was quite a simple explanation for a device that had baffled and delighted audiences for the better part of a century, and it caused great disappointment. The Turk itself would be put back into storage, and its days were finally put to an end by a warehouse fire in 1854.
At the same time that Maelzel was touring the chess-playing robot, another inventor was widely promoting what he claimed to be an actual, fully functioning perpetual motion machine. The concept of what has become known as “perpetual motion” is simple at its core. It basically describes an object or body that remains in continuous motion forever without any external energy source. If a machine were to be built using some sort of perpetual motion technology, it would theoretically run forever without any need for fuel, batteries, or power of any kind. This means basically unlimited energy, freeing us from the tethers of finite sources of fuel and giving us devices that will never wind down or die out. It has become a sort of holy grail for certain individuals, who continue to plug away at this seemingly unobtainable dream, and it is just amazing how much the idea of perpetual motion has enthralled people over a large portion of history. One of these was first unveiled in 1812 by an until then rather unknown man named Charles Redheffer, who began exhibiting his invention in his home in Philadelphia, in the United States.
His fantastical machine featured a gravity-driven pendulum with a large horizontal gear on the bottom, and a smaller gear that interlocked with the larger one, with the large gear and the shaft able to rotate independently. On the gear were two ramps that held weights, and it all supposedly worked by these weights pushing the large gear away from the shaft, which would create friction that would cause the shaft and gear to spin. This spinning gear would then power the interlocked smaller gear, and on and on it would go, supposedly forever unless the weights were removed. The machine was put on display and immediately became a smash sensation, drawing in droves of amazed spectators and scientists alike, all of whom were charged a hefty admission fee by Redheffer and none of who could figure out how it all worked. It was largely whispered that he had finally cracked perpetual motion, that he had achieved the seemingly impossible dream. Before long Redhefer was getting quite rich off of his oddball machine, and there was much excited speculation that he had actually done it and achieved true perpetual motion, despite raised eyebrows from the scientific community.
Redheffer, emboldened by the response to his device, actually requested funding from the state of Pennsylvania to build a much larger version, and on January 21, 1813, state inspectors were sent to take a look at the machine before any money would be paid. Unfortunately for Redheffer, he had never let anyone ever take a good, close look at his device, and it would soon become apparent why. The inspectors arrived and were immediately suspicious when it turned out they could only view it through a window into a locked room. Even so, there were cracks appearing in Redheffer’s claims when it was noticed that the gear cogs were worn down in such a way as to suggest that the weights, shaft, and large gear were not powering the smaller gear, as Redheffer claimed, but rather the other way around. To them this was an obvious hoax, but the way they dealt with it is rather amusing. Rather than call out Redheffer on his scam, inspector Nathan Sellers hired a local engineer by the name of Isaiah Lukens to build a replica that was more compact and set within a solid baseboard with a square piece of glass at the top. There was no discernible way as to why it could work, yet concealed within the machine was a wind able motor that was wound through the covert use of a wooden decorative finial. With a little sleight of hand, the illusion was nearly perfect, and when he saw it Redheffer himself was so incredibly surprised to see what he took to be a real perpetual motion machine that he allegedly secretly offered Lukens a large amount of money to know the secret. After this, the news did the rest of the work and Redheffer was undone and exposed through a taste of his own medicine.
Amazingly, this did not put a stop to Redheffer. Undeterred, he simply moved to New York to set up shop there where his reputation hadn’t been as tarnished, once again enjoying some amount a fame and drawing in droves of curiosity seekers. One of these was an engineer by the name of Robert Fulton, who noticed something fishy as he observed the mysterious device in action. He could see a slight wobble to it, and also noticed a very slight unevenness to its speed and the sounds it made, both things that should not be present in a real perpetual motion device. A real device of this type would need to be frictionless and perfectly silent because friction and sound would be a loss of energy, so these were glaring clues that something was off, especially to his trained eye. Realizing that it was obviously being somehow powered by crank motion, Fulton confronted Redheffer on the spot, but the inventor amazingly held his ground, insisting that the machine was real.
Fulton then challenged Redheffer to allow him to search for any possible source of outside power, to which Redheffer foolishly agreed. After this, Fulton simply tore out a section of wall in full view of a gathered audience to find a concealed cable that led to an upstairs room, where an old man was found operating a crank. The spectators, who had all paid good money to see the amazing “perpetual motion machine,” were less than thrilled. They reportedly immediately took out their frustrations on the machine itself, smashing it to pieces, and might have done the same to Redheffer if he hadn’t already hi-tailed it out of there to later skip town. Unbelievably, Redheffer would claim several years later that he had created another machine, and that it was totally, for sure real this time, and he even got a patent for it in 1920, but since it was never put on display or examined and the patent was lost in a fire who knows if there was any truth to it.
Such an invention would be groundbreaking, completely changing our world, and it is a fascinating thing to think about it, yet according to our current knowledge of physics it simply just isn’t possible, as such a machine would violate one or more of the laws of thermodynamics. To put it in simple terms, the First Law of Thermodynamics basically is about the conservation of energy, and says that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transformed from one form to another, making the idea of a machine constantly creating its own energy without any outside influence impossible. There is also the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which in simple terms more or less says that an isolated system will always move toward a state of disorder, for instance heat will always dissipate and energy will be lost on any number of variables, including moving parts, friction, even sound, with the more energy formed meaning the more energy wasted. It is all much more complicated than this very basic explanation, but the gist is, a perpetual motion machine is impossible according to our current understanding of the universe and the laws of the conversation of energy. Alas, all of the many supposed perpetual motion machines have proven to be hoaxes.
In 1875 we have the strange story of John Worrell Keely, who founded the Keely Motor Company. Keely made the rather bold claim that he had invented what he called a “vibratory generator” that could purportedly wrest enough power out of a quart of water to pull a fully loaded train. He would give some seemingly successful demonstrations of this amazing device, and soon had investors throwing money at him to develop it. He would keep taking their money and stalling as he fine tuned his device, but after more than a decade of this suspicions began to arise. Nevertheless, it was such a potentially ground breaking marvel that there was still hope it might all be real. Sadly, when Keeley died in 1898 it was discovered that he had been pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes, with him having merely used a clever ruse of having a compressed air machine hidden away that would provide power to the engine. This would not be the last time someone would try to fool everyone into thinking they could turn power into fuel, and we will get to another case later.
Not all bogus inventions were for benevolent purposes. In 1876 a self-proclaimed "Professor" by the name of James C. Wingard, of New Orleans, came forth with what he claimed to be a weapon that he had designed that could utterly destroy Naval vessels. It was supposedly essentially a death ray that he said projected a “nameless force,” and which could devastate any vessel “so as to leave no trace of them in their former shape” from a range of up to 5 miles. Wingard heavily promoted his device as the future of warfare, and promised that any one who had possession of it would rule the seas and be unstoppable, able to annihilate any enemy. This obviously had the attention of the military, and he went about arranging a demonstration on June 8, 1876 at Lake Pontchartrain. As a large crowd looked on, Wingard engaged his device, aiming it at a large wooden schooner. There was apparently a lag of around a minute before the schooner exploded into a rain of fire and smoke, after which the vessel rapidly sank.
It would soon be found that the schooner had been completely obliterated, with one statement saying “even the small timbers aft of the mainmast were broken all to pieces,” and the test seemed to have been a resounding success. Wingard then formed a stock company in Boston and continued his work on refining his groundbreaking weapon, attracting many investors. As with Keeley, they were soon demanding results, so he set up another demonstration in Boston Harbor. However, when he activated the device, there was an explosion far from the target vessel, and an investigation would find a disintegrated rowboat and two bodies in the water. Wingard cancelled the demonstration and that was all highly suspicious, with skeptics now suggesting that he was merely sending a crew out on a rowboat to secretly plant explosives on the target vessel and then using a triggering mechanism to ignite it. Wracked with guilt, Wingard would come clean and admit that this was the case, and that his team had died when the explosives had accidentally gone off. The death ray had been a sham all along.
Moving onto 1896 we have the bizarre story of Rev. Prescott Ford Jernegan, of Middletown, Connecticut, who claimed to have developed a way to extract gold from sea water with a device he called the “Gold Accumulator.” It was not a new idea at the time, but no one had ever even come close to accomplishing it. He first came to a jeweler named Arthur Ryan with this amazing invention, and offered to perform a demonstration. The machine itself looked like a simple wooden box with holes that water could pass through, with the inside containing mercury that would be electrically charged to activate a “secret ingredient.” The box was to be lowered into sea water, left overnight, and when it was pulled up the next day it would be filled with gold due to some mysterious chemical process. When Ryan agreed to see a demonstration, Jernegan simply gave him the box and told him he could do it on his own.
In February of 1897 Ryan went about testing the device on a wharf outside of Providence, Rhode Island, along with several colleagues. They used it as its inventor had instructed them to, lowered it into the water, and the next morning sure enough there were flecks of gold within it. It wasn’t as much as they had been expecting, but it was still over $100 dollars of gold in today’s money so it was seen as promising. If a collection of such machines could be set up running day and night, it could prove to be quite lucrative indeed. Jernagan said he could churn out a further 1,000 devices within the year, and there were dollar signs dancing through Ryan’s eyes. Jernegan, Ryan, and a team of investors founded the Electrolytic Marine Salts Company, and got to work on getting stinky filthy rich.
They set up an array of accumulators in Maine and Boston, and began pulling in more gold from them, “proving” it worked and attracting people wanting to buy stock in the company. Investors were pouring in money, interest was high, and it seemed to be too good to be true, and sadly, it was. In July of 1898, Jernegan suddenly vanished without a trace, later found to have hi-tailed it to Europe under a fake name. Not long after they were gone, the accumulators stopped producing gold, and it didn’t take a genius to figure out that they had all been scammed. It would turn out that Jernegan had an assistant named Charles Fisher, who also happened to have been a trained diver. It turned out that he had been secretly diving into the sea to load the accumulators with gold, a small price to pay considering how much they were pulling in from investors. As soon as the orders for their machines had gone up, they had taken all of the invested money and made a run for it, making a cool $200,000 each, about a bajillion dollars in today’s money. The two scam artists were never caught, but the idea of extracting gold from sea water remained for quite some time.
In 1909, we have the clever hoax of an inventor named Wallace Tillinghast, from Worcester, Massachusetts, who claimed that he had built an amazing new type of airplane. This was only a few years after the Wright Brothers had made their first flight, and aircraft were still in their infancy, slow and only capable of short stints with little extra weight. Indeed, the longest flight up to then was Louis Blériot’s solo flight across the English Channel, which had gone only 22 miles. In comparison, Tillinghast claimed that his own design could hold three passengers and fly over 300 miles at an average speed of 120 miles an hour, which might as well have been magic at the time. He further claimed that he had performed several test flights of his aircraft that confirmed these numbers, and excitement was high.
Through all of this, Tillinghast was very secretive as to how his airplane worked, claiming that he did not want the plans to get into the wring hands, but he assured the public that he would come forward with his amazing invention. In the meantime, there were alleged sightings of the new airplane all over New England, with thousands of witnesses and many claiming that it often shot a searchlight below it. However, there were many skeptics. Wilbur Wright himself dismissed Tillinghast’s claims as “too palpably absurd from the first to take seriously,” and reporters who had been following him and even staking out his home could find no evidence that he had any such plane or workshop where he claimed to be working on it.
As this was going on there were still numerous sightings of a mysterious airship the like of which no one had ever seen, and Tillinghast insisted that he was telling the truth. Eventually, a local man named C.D. Rawson admitted to causing the sightings with lights and reflectors attached to owls as a hoax, but Tillinghast did not budge from his adamant position that his invention was real. 1910 came and went with no further word on the amazing new airplane, and the public ended up merely shrugging their shoulders and moving on. It would largely be looked at as a huge hoax, with no evidence that Tillinghast had any such aircraft or had ever made a flight at all, and he would just sort of fade away into the background.
Moving on into more modern times, we have still more mysterious supposed inventions that could have had world changing implications. In the 1970s, a man named Thomas Ogle claimed to have developed a new type of car carburetor that supposedly could make gasoline into a pressurized vapor and utilize it on the engine’s firing chambers in an incredibly super efficient manner, allowing vehicles to allegedly run over 100 miles to the gallon. In addition, Ogle claimed that any car could be modified to use the new system easily and for not much additional cost, making the whole thing seem almost too good to be true. Ogle himself showed off a Ford Galaxie that had supposedly been fitted with the new miracle carburetor and was clocked at around 113 miles to the gallon.
Unfortunately we will never know. Ogle died in 1981 without ever having divulged just how the vapor carburetor worked, and even his death has sparked controversy, with some saying he was intentionally poisoned by someone within the big gasoline companies who stood to lose the most from such an innovative product. Considering that no one has ever been able to replicate the process, it has been speculated that the whole thing could have been a hoax, with Ogle simply showing an illusion utilizing hidden fuel tanks, but other have defended his invention as having been real, and in the end the fact is we simply don’t know. All we know is that it would have been a revolutionary development way ahead of its time.
Getting back to perpetual motion machines, one was unveiled in 1979 by American inventor Joseph Newman. The machine was called the DC motor, and according to him worked by using “energy in a magnetic field consisting of matter in motion,” and which he claimed could produce more energy than was put into it. He even went about seeking a patent for his invention, but it was denied as the Patent Office could not see how it could feasibly work. When Newman appealed this decision, it was found in an investigation by the National Bureau of Standards that the device’s power output was never above 100% of the power supplied to it, which was not promising. Newman would continue to adamantly insist that his machine really worked, but he sort of fell into obscurity after making all manner of other crackpot claims over the years. Whether his supposed perpetual motion machine ever really worked or not remains unknown, but everything we know about science says probably not. For now, the notion of a real working perpetual motion machine really does sit in the realm of science fiction, and it has mostly been a pursuit abandoned by most real scientists. It has come to be relegated to mad inventors working in their garages against all odds to try and make the impossible possible.
Our species is always going to reach towards the horizon and penetrate into the mysteries that we don't understand, further opening up new discoveries and propelling our progress. This is an innate feature of our kind, and to be sure there will be leaps and bounds made over the coming decades that will bring true progress. Yet looking back at cases such as these it seems that for as much progress as we make, there will always be those willing to fake it for fame or money.