The Basement Mechanic's Guide to Testing Perpetual Motion Machines

Perpetual disappointment.
Science and Invention, March, 1925, cover.

There seems to be a growing interest in perpetual motion machine invention as a hobby. Basement tinkerers build overbalanced wheels, magnet motors, and cyclic hydraulic devices, pursuing the holy grail of achieving a device with a power efficiency greater than one (over-unity, they call it). Too often their ingenuity of design is not matched by equal ingenuity at testing the device, which is absolutely necessary to determine whether they are onto something. It's also necessary to convince any skeptic that your machine is worth serious attention. Furthermore, in science we don't take any hypothesis seriously unless it is in principle falsifiable.

Putting it more bluntly, anyone who has a perpetual motion idea is obligated to state without equivocation or obfuscation what experiment could be performed that might show that it is a flawed idea. If he cannot do that, he cannot expect anyone to take it seriously.

1. Testing is as important as inventing.

So you've built a prototype perpetual motion machine? It seems promising, but how can you test its operation and its output/input efficiency? You need a way to compare its efficiency with that of ordinary machines, and to compare improved versions of your PMM with earlier versions, to see whether you are making progress in the right direction. You wouldn't want to waste time re-inventing the square wheel.

Many pitfalls await the unwary experimenter. Any machine novel enough to be PMM may have characteristics that make measurements difficult, and which can even fool ordinary measuring instruments.

You've blown your budget on expensive magnets, low-friction bearings and construction parts, and have little left over for sophisticated measuring equipment. Fortunately there are many inexpensive ways to test your inventions that are good enough for your needs, and, far more important, are not subject to large indeterminate error.

2. Purely Mechanical Devices.

A typical overbalanced wheel
made in 2003 by a basement inventor.

One might have thought that overbalanced wheels, the first kind of perpetual motion machine, were a relic of history. But it only takes a casual search of the internet to discover that the idea is still very much alive. In spite of a long record of past failures, some inventors still hold out hope that some new combination of mechanisms and improvements will be discovered that will at last achieve the desired performance, in defiance of the known laws of physics.

So there sits your invention, a wheel, perhaps, with shifting weights in the form of hammers, levered weights, rolling balls, springs, and other embellishments. You give it a spin and it continues turning for quite a long time before stopping. You are encouraged by this. Of course it eventually stops turning because of that pesky friction, air drag, and other dissipative processes. But friction can always be reduced, improving performance. Is the idea worth improving and refining? After all, the Wright brothers' first "flight" didn't get very far off the ground.

I assume your wheel doesn't start itself, or you wouldn't have to give it an initial push. That push represents input work—a form of energy. After that push the wheel displays kinetic energy of rotation. Some of that energy is slowly lost in friction. The bottom line is this: does the output energy (including that lost through the processes of friction) exceed the input energy?

I also assume your machine slows continually and always comes to a stop, or you wouldn't be reading this, you'd be reaping the rewards of your genius. That tells you that it isn't yet producing more energy than that dissipated by friction and other processes.

Unfortunately the thermal energy (and sound energy) resulting from friction is difficult to measure. Perhaps we should reformulate the problem.

What you really want to know is whether your wheel's special features (those shifting weights, for example) actually improve the performance over an identical wheel that does not allow the weights to shift. If so, then the shifting weights really are improving performance. If not, then you are fooling yourself in thinking they were a good idea.

Suppose you gave the wheel an initial push, putting in a known amount of energy. Measure how long it takes to come to a stop. Then secure those shifting weights so they can't move, and do it again. [Use string, wire, or duct tape to secure them in place.] If those moving weights were really improving performance, the wheel should now come to a stop sooner than before. If the wheel with the weights immobile spins longer, then clearly the moving weights weren't helping.

You could imagine a pair of identical wheels side by side, one with the weights immobilized. Drive both shafts with a friction drive on a small motor, so they reach the same rpm. Remove the driving motor. Now see which one stops first.

Can we apply this same principle without building an identical wheel? If the shifting weights are improving performance they must be supplying energy during wheel rotation. This extra energy compensates for some of the lost energy due to friction. The same should be happening during the initial acceleration. The "higher performing" wheel should require less energy to get it to up a certain rpm than an ordinary wheel.

Method 1. Spring driven.

Obtain a suitable spring to give the wheel an initial spin. The spring from a mouse or rat trap is ideal. Attach it in such a way that the wheel may be given a reproducible initial position, then release it to power the wheel and, finally, disengage itself to allow the wheel to continue to turn without impediment. School students in science classes often use this method to power model cars for various competitions.

Method 2. Weight driven.

We can also utilize a method often used in freshman physics laboratories. Provide the initial acceleration to the wheel with a weight falling a certain distance. The wheel probably has an axle. Put a peg in the axle, and fasten a string on that peg. Wind up the string around the axle. Hang a weight on the other end of the string. Now tinker a bit, so that the weight is large enough to give a brisk rpm to the wheel as the weight "falls" to the floor, but takes a reasonably long time to do so, perhaps at least 5 or 10 seconds.

The comparison.

Whichever method you use, make sure the wheel gets moving fast enough that the wheel's performance enhancing mechanisms are actually operating. Now time the weight's fall with a good stopwatch in two cases: (1) with all your performance enhancing mechanisms working and (2) with those mechanisms disabled.

Be sure that the weight of the entire wheel is the same in both cases and that nothing alters the bearing friction.

For a specific example, see Testing a SMOT.

If those mechanisms are really helping the motion, compensating somewhat for friction, then the time of fall with those mechanisms working should be smaller than when the mechanisms are disabled. If it's the other way around, you'd better rethink the whole idea, for those mechanisms are degrading performance, wasting energy rather than producing energy.

3. Dynamometers.

I have never heard a perpetual motion machine inventor mention dynamometers or deProny brakes. These devices are standard methods used even today for measuring power output of machines. But then, I shouldn't be surprised, for the perpetual motion scene is populated by people ignorant of mechanics, engineering, mathematics and physics.

Gaspard Clair François Marie
Riche de Prony (1755-1839).
Mathematician and Engineer.

See: Dynamometer, and de Prony Brake in the Wikipedia. See also Prony Brake.

When I was a college student in the 1950s the Freshman physics course included a laboratory experiment that used a de Prony Brake dynamometer. Physics students today spend their lab time using fancy electronic measuring devices and may never learn traditional basic laboratory skills. This fosters a "black box" mentality that trusts someone else to provide the high-tech measuring devices, and someone else to calibrate and repair them, without ever inquiring what's in them and why they work as they do.

The principle of the brake is simple. A leather strap passes over a wheel that is driven by the machine, its ends held fixed, with a simple method for measuring belt tension (spring balance or suspended weight). You also need a tachometer to measure the wheel's angular speed (rpm). Then, using elementary physics:

Prony Brake in use with
two spring balances A and B.
C is the tachometer.
The belt tension is the difference
between the balance readings.

P = τ ω


P = F v


P is the power in watts
τ is the torque in newton meters
ω is the angular velocity in radians per second
F is the force in newtons
v is the linear velocity of the wheel rim in meters per second

The belt tension is adjusted until the wheel turns at its intended operating speed under load. The tachometer measures the shaft angular velocity. The beauty of this method is that it measures the power output of a machine under realistic load, at the speed the machine is expected to maintain if it were doing useful work. I've seen allegedly over-unity machines being run without load, which tells us nothing useful about the machine's work output or efficiency.

Anyone can build a dynamomter testing rig using inexpensive materials. Of course it isn't of any use if your PPM device doesn't maintain its motion for long enough to measure its rpm. Maybe that's why we never hear of this method being used to measure power output of a perpetual motion device.

4. Magnet Motors.

Current serious designs for PMM are seldom purely mechanical. That approach has been fruitless for so many centuries that many inventors conclude there's nothing new there to be discovered. Nearly all of those devices were variations of overbalanced wheels.

Magnet-motors are all the rage these days. But even folks who have had physics and engineering courses are often deficient in understanding of magnetic fields and magnetic materials.

The inventor who thinks the power output of his electromagnetic device can be measured by attaching a voltmeter and ammeter to the output and calculating P=I×V is totally unqualified for the task.

Motors and generators are electromagnetic machines, and electrical engineers have had long experience with them. Magnets and wires moving in a magnetic field continually radiate electromagnetic fields, and these can cause interference with nearby electronic equipment such as telephone, radio and television sets. Such interfering radiation can propagate directly as fields, or can be conducted over power lines. Commercial motors, designed to minimize these problems, are housed within partially shielding enclosures, and often have capacitive-inductive filters to reduce interference with other equipment.

The experimenter's PMM magnet motor, however, is usually exposed and unshielded, without any attention given to designing it to minimize electromagnetic radiation. The output wave form is far from sinusoidal, and induction effects may modify the input wave form as well. These wave forms contain abrupt discontinuities and even sharp pulses and spikes, which simple electrical meters can't respond to properly. The radiated fields may affect the meter's circuitry directly. Also, the output likely has a considerable phase angle between current and voltage. For these reasons, simple electrical meters can give false readings.

  • The output of such a device very likely has a phase shift between current and voltage. The output power is IVcos(θ) where θ is the phase angle. If you simply calculate power as the product of current and voltage (separately measured with two meters) you'll get a value larger than the actual power, because of neglect of the phase factor. In the calculation of power, this is called the power factor.

  • Typical experimenter's magnet motors generally have spikes and pulses in the output, but not so often in the input.

  • Spikes and pulses in the output usually make voltmeter, ammeter and wattmeter readings give misleadingly high values.

  • For these reasons, calculations of input/output efficiency made from separate meter readings of current and voltage can be much higher than the actual efficiency.
Keith Kenyon, M.D. (inventor), Barton Buhtz and Jack Schlicht of Solar World, developers of these magnet motors photographed at a public display and news conference in Los Angeles in March 1979. The wheels are spinning arrays of magnets, and the entire apparatus is unshielded. Astronaut Gordon Cooper had earlier endorsed the motors.

Solar World claimed they had measured the motor's efficiency as 126%. Skeptics were invited to bring their own meters to test these devices. Some did, and measured efficiencies well in excess of one.

Here's a checklist of pitfalls, and suggestions for finding them and ensuring they don't affect your measurements.

  • Use appropriate meters. The AC function of ordinary meters gives correct readings only for sinusoidal waveforms at frequency 60 Hz, the frequency of power trasmission in the USA. Other parts of the world use different standards, such as 50 Hz. These give seriously wrong readings on waveforms of other frequencies.

  • Electrical meters of the ordinary kind read correctly only when used with "clean" (free of distortion and noise) sinusoidal waves. Simple meters, even electronic ones, give wrong AC readings when used with waveforms of other shapes. True RMS meters (quite expensive) do better, but...

  • Almost any electrical meter can be fooled by waveforms containing brief spikes and pulses and abrupt slope discontinuities. Magnet-motors produce such spikes and pulses. Very narrrow spikes often aren't noticed even on an oscilloscope screen.

  • Magnet motors produce electromagnetic radiation that can affect nearby electrical meters and electrical circuits. This can cause electrical meters nearby to give false readings. Metal enclosures do a fairly good job of shielding low frequency electric fields, but high frequency fields also cause trouble, and they can "leak" through small holes in the metal case. There is no known way to completely shield magnetic fields. Perfect magnetic shields may be as impossible as achieving PMM.

  • The best way to make an electrical output power measurement is to do a calorimetric (heat) measurement of the temperature change of a load resistor. When only approximate values are needed, some very simple and inexpensive methods are available. (After all, if a PMM is to be of any use to anyone, it's output must drive some sort of a load, a resistor, or a motor. Use a resistor or incandescent lamp as load and measure its temperature change.)

  • The most convincing way to see if a machine puts out more power than it takes in is to drive the machine with part of its own output. If an inventor isn't clever enough to do this, why should we assume he is clever enough to invent a PMM?

  • Some machines may require a battery or other power source to supply continual current, say to field coils. One must carefully monitor this battery to be sure that it isn't the driving power for the machine. You must count any power it supplies as "input power". (But if the machine is really over-unity, why not power those components with part of the output power and dispense with the batteries?)

  • Contrary to the belief of some inventors, magnets are not a miraculous source of inexhaustible power. They have stored energy (put in when they were initially magnetized), but once that relatively small amount of energy is used up, they aren't magnets any more. Strike a magnet repeatedly with a hammer, and you can reduce its magnetization considerably. On the other hand, hold a rod of unmagnetized soft iron aligned with the earth's field, strike it repeatedly with a hammer, and you will find it has become magnetized by induction. And you didn't put much energy into it, did you?

  • Some inventors find that they can make a wheel of magnets, and then hold a magnet near it to maintain the wheel's motion. This is the "table-turning" effect observed at spiritualist séances, as demonstrated by Michael Faraday. Some psychologists call it the "ideomotor effect";. Faraday had sitters press their fingers not on the table, but on a board sitting on rollers on the table. The table didn't move. In the magnet motor, the hand holding the magnet supplies the small amount of work to maintain motion, due to a feedback with a small phase shift. The hand senses force on the magnet, and the muscles oppose the motion of the magnet, but with just enough time delay to cause energy feedback to the magnets of the wheel. [Click here to see this effect at work in the Minato motor. Watch his hands "working" the wheel.] There's a simple test to see whether this is happening. Instead of holding the magnet in the hand, clamp the magnet to a firm support in the very same position and orientation. Put adjustment positioning screws on it if you wish, to optimize its position. Does the wheel still turn? How long?

  • Some machines require a battery or a push to get started. This must be disconnected before one measures input and output power to determine the efficiency of the machine while it's running on its own.

When the courts ordered the Bureau of Standards to test Joseph Newman's machine, they already had the sophisticated and expensive equipment to do the measurements properly. The machine failed the tests. In a way, this was "overkill", for any savvy experimental physicist or engineer could have done those tests conclusively for a few hundred dollars worth of equipment in his garage or basement.

One inventor's machine had a battery to start it, and then, the inventor claimed, the machine's own power recharged the battery. It wasn't hard to show that the battery never was being recharged, but was supplying energy all the time. A small value resistor was wired in series with the battery (connected at a battery terminal) and a simple microvoltmeter connected across the resistor to continually monitor the voltage across the resistor. The voltage never changed sign. Therefore the current never changed direction. Therefore the battery supplied energy the whole time, and was never being charged. Case closed.

5. Electrical measuring devices and circuits.

One quick way to see if your electrical meters are lying to you is to compare measurements made with one set of meters of a particular type (say analog meters) with measurements made with a different type (say electronic meters). Do thiese measurements on the actual machine. If the results are different, you know that one or the other type of meter (or both) is deceiving you. Do the readings change as the meters are placed in different positions and orientations, or if the connecting wires are shifted in position? If so, be suspicious that the shielding or grounding is not adequate.

Older meters often have an analog electromagetic movement driving a needle moving across a calibrated scale. Digital meters generally have no moving parts. I have seen situations where analog meters, even expensive ones, can be directly affected by electromagnetic radiation from a circuit, especially a circuit with unshielded components, or with magnets. The fields act directly on the electromechanical movement of the meter, and can produce readings that bear no accurate relation to what you are trying to measure.

Electromechanical meter movements may be dependent on the orientation of the meter with respect to the circuit being tested. Their readings may also be dependent on the physical orientation of the meter with respect to gravity&emdash;whether it is upright or lying on its back. In fact, I recall once using very expensive name-brand precision meter that was gravity-dependent, and the instruction manual clearly said that it should only be used lying on its back, not upright. Sometimes it pays to read the instruction manual, even before you buy. It was an example of the fact that "precision" and "accuracy" are not synonyms.

And don't neglect the connecting wires from meter to circuit. These can form an "induction" loop that acts as an antenna for electromagnetic AC radiation. Using shielded and properly grounded wires, or even a twisted pair, can help avoid this.

Consult a good book on electrical measurements and you will discover that proper measurements often demand considerable attention to grounding and shielding of all components of the circuit and the measuring instruments.

Internal resistance of meters can cause problems. Most modern voltmeters have very high impedance inputs (several megohms), which largely avoid this, but ammeters are usually not ideal "zero resistance" devices. It's better to measure current with a high quality voltmeter connected across a precision resistor. That resistor should not be one that has resistance wire wound in a simple coil. (One can obtain resistors with wire wound non-inductively, specifically constructed to avoid such errors.)

Terminals and junctions in your circuit can cause problems, especially at junctions between two different metals. These can cause thermoelectric potentials that are temperature-dependent. Surface oxidation should be scrupulously cleaned from terminals and wires with liquid metal cleaner, then thoroughly washed with distilled water.

And don't forget that pesky phase angle. If there's a phase shift between voltage and current (and there usually is in these devices) then separate meter measurement of voltage and current is a waste of time unless you know the size of that phase angle. An oscilloscope may be necessary to determine the phase angle.

But why not avoid the possible problems of voltmeters and ammeters entirely? The definition of electrical power for both AC, DC and even for pathologically complicated waveforms is based on their heating effects. Using the output electrical power to heat a resistor automaticaly bypasses the phase angle problem. If you power an incandescent light bulb with AC, and another identical lamp with DC, and still another with some horribly complicated wave form, even with a phase angle, then when the lamps burn equally brightly, they are receiving the very same power. More precisely, when they are burning at the same temperature in identical environments, they are receiving (and radiating) the same power.

What could be easier (and cheaper) than using incandescent lamps to compare electrical machine performance by measuring lamp brigtness by photometric methods? You still must use some care and good judgment in designing and carrying out the procedure.

When there's a large difference between the output of the two machines being compared, your eye can easily tell which bulb burns brightest. For smaller differences, a photographer's light-meter at a fixed distance from the bulb may be sufficient. When quantitative results are desired, the test (comparison) lamp can be driven by an adjustable DC source with an ordinary voltmeter and ammeter to measure the electrical power to the lamp. The power source is adjusted until the test lamp's brightness and color exactly matches that of the same lamp driven by the machine.

Of course, when making such comparisons, the input power to the PMM must be controlled and measured also.

Tom Napier (see references below) even suggests measuring electrical power by causing it to heat an insulated container of water and measuring how long it takes for the water to come to a boil. Don't scoff. Sometimes the simplest methods are the best.

6. The power transfer theorem.

A principle well known to electrical experimenters is the power transfer theorem. Strangely, it is almost never mentioned by inventors of magnet motors. Any electrical device that has output current also has a characteristic internal impedance within the device itself. In a DC device, that impedance is simply its resistance, so let's speak in terms of this simpler DC example. The power transfer theorem is easily proven from Ohm's law and the electrical definition of power. The result is this: The maximum power is delivered to the load when the load resistance is equal to the source resistance. Therefore the power delivered to the load depends on the load's resistance.

Now that output current that passes through the load is also passing through the electrical generator's internal resistance. When these two resistances are equal half the power of the generator is delivered to the external load, half is dissipated (wastefully, and mostly as heat) in the generator itself. Fortunately maximum power efficiency isn't the same as maximum power transfer, and one can achieve generator efficiencies greater than 90% by making the motor resistance (or impedance, in the AC case) as small as possible. Similar considerations apply to electric motors.

One mistake amateurs often make in testing is to measure the device's input when the device is attached to a load, then use a different load resistance when measuring the output. One must be careful that the meters used do not alter the effective output load. A mistake of this sort could even make your PMM's performace seem worse than it actually is!

7. Testing the Bhaskara wheel.

The Bhaskara wheel, the oldest known perpetual motion machine proposal, was assumed to operate by a principle of "overbalance". (Villard's wheel with seven articulated hammers was another example.) The liquid in the vials on one side of the wheel is always farther from the axle, therefore apparently favoring downward motion of that side. This notion is false, and can easily be tested.

Spin a bicycle wheel and see how long it takes to stop. Then attach the vials half-filled with liquid to its rim at an angle, as in the Bhaskara wheel. Give the wheel a spin and time how long it spins. It will come to a stop much sooner than the simple bicycle wheel. Now give it a spin on the opposite direction. It will take about the same time to stop no matter which direction you start it spinning. This is clear evidence that the wheel is not overbalanced to favor motion in one direction.

A clever young man, Raymond Hsu, did this experiment and posted the results on youtube: Is it real? Perpetual motion Bhaskara's wheel. He has other videos here: Raymond Hsu youtube channel.

You could even put the bottles of water in a freezer, and freeze them solid. Use sturdy bottles that won't burst. Then quickly attach them to the wheel, and give it a spin. It should spin much longer than when the water was liquid, demonstrating that the motion of the water in the vials wasn't sustaining motion, but was actually slowing the wheel.

Nit-pickers may object that the initial spin given to the wheel might not be the same in all cases. But the results are so dramatically different with the water bottles and without them, that variations in the initial push don't matter much. One could easily improve the procedure by standardizing the initial push in any of the ways I described above

8. Subtler gotchas.

Once while doing a research project requiring extremely sensitive low-current measurements, a strange effect was seen. Of course we had made all efforts to properly ground everything to a common ground with heavy grounding straps, and to shield sensitive components. We were working in a laboratory two floors below ground level. But we'd see a residual noise on the signal during the day, but not at night. The spurious signal was barely seen on an oscilloscope, but was real. At first we suspected electromagnetic interference from office equipment, computers, or printers, which might not be operating after working hours. But the interference signal was constant, not intermittent. Further observation showed that it began approximately at sunset and ceased at sunrise. Yet our lab had no windows and received no sunlight whatsoever. Finally, after seeing this on our oscilloscopes for many weeks, I decided it might be useful to listen to it. So I fed the signal to an audio amplifier, and I could barely distinguish garbled voices and music. It was interference from a local radio station. But why the sunset/sunrise effect? It was an AM station on one of the FCC-designated "clear channel" frequencies, which is required to cut its power from sunset till sunrise, to provide a clear channel for a high powered "clear channel station" operating on that same frequency, to give that station broader coverage at night.

9. Divide and conquer.

Perhaps your invention is so complex that the thought of building one for testing seems daunting, and could break your budget. Inventors often face this problem. One approach is to test just the crucial parts of the idea, one at a time.

Look carefully at your design and try to identify what subsystem is crucial to its supposedly superior performance. What is in it that is special, unique, never before employed in such devices?

Can you model just that crucial subsystem, in a way that is inexpensive to build and simple to test? What we want to do is to test not the whole device, but to test the innovative concept that the device depends upon.

At the very least, considerations of this sort will help you to focus on the essentials, and help you to understand your invention better. In so doing you may discover a better, simpler, or cheaper way to do it, or you may discover that the clever idea you hoped would make it perform spectacularly wasn't quite clever enough.


© 2003 by Donald E. Simanek. Minor revisions 2009, 2010, 2012, 2015, 2019.

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