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The Keely Motor Hoax

This article about John Keely appeared in a book called `FOIBLES AND FALLACIES OF SCIENCE' written in 1924. Vangard Sciences presents all information available, both pro and con to let the individual researcher decide for himself. Found in a Michigan bookstore and contributed by Ron Barker.


After the search for perpetual motion was abandoned by true scientists, and the fallacy became too generally recognized to make it a means of coaxing money from the credulous investor, the idea took the no less insidious character of a machine which required a constant moderate supply of power from an outside source, but would return this many times over.

This result was to be accomplished by means of special mechanical actions or reactions which were declared to be either wholly new discoveries, or else actions that were not commonly understood. Practically unlimited supplies of power could be produced at little cost.

These special actions were, of course, the inventor's secret, but among them `vibration' was one of most potent, and twin brother to this was `radiation.' A celebrated instance of this phase of perpetual motion vagary was the Keely Motor. This while not claiming to be a perpetual motion machine, did purport to furnish motive power with a minimum expenditure of energy upon it.

It comes therefore in the class that legitimately succeeded the efforts to secure perpetual motion; but instead of being a sincere attempt to advance mechanical science by a genuine discovery of a new principle or some new application of old principles it was a fraud, although masquerading for a long time under the garb of honesty. It possessed so many of the characteristics of this kind of foible as to justify a somewhat extended account of it.

The inventor John Worrell Keely was a carpenter, who was born in Philadelphia in 1837 and died there in 1898. He was a good mechanic and a very clever talker, but not a highly educated man.

With a claim to have discovered a new force in mechanics which was to work wonders, he succeeded in inducing a dozen engineers and capitalists to organize a Keely Motor Company in New York in 1872, and to subscribe ten thousand dollars to begin the construction of the motor. He immediately applied his money to the purchase of material and the construction of machinery, and began to attract the attention of the public in 1874 when he gave a demonstration of the motor before a small company of prominent citizens of Philadelphia, November 10th of that year.

Among the expedients resorted to in exploiting a scientific fraud, mystifying lingo is one of the commonest, and in this Mr. Keely was an adept. At this demonstration the machine, or so much of it as was then to be exhibited, was called a "vibratory-generator"; in a later demonstration it was a "hydro-pneumatic-pulsating-vacu-engine" and changes in nomenclature were being rung continually always vague, delightfully general, and suggesting unlimited possibilities.

The inventor's funds began to run low, but his plausibility sufficed to keep him afloat and he so completely deluded his supporters, especially his most ardent one, Mrs. Bloomfield Moore, that he continued to hold their interest, and was kept on his feet financially. By 1890, however, the stockholders had become too weary (or wary) to be put off by evasions or tricks.

Mr. Keely declared he was now on the eve of success; he had arrived at that crucial stage, lacking just the one slight adjustment which, in all such cases, proves the insurmountable bar to final achievement. His "generator" had now become a "liberator" which would disintegrate air and release an etheric force of cyclonic strength.

One spectator at a demonstration said that a pint of water poured into a cylinder seemed to work great wonders. " The gauge showed a pressure of more than fifty thousand pounds to the square inch.

Great ropes were torn apart, iron bars broken in two or twisted out of shape, bullets discharged through twelve inch planks, by a force which could not be determined.

In the glory of his exuberance Keely now declared that with one quart of water, he would be able to send a train of cars from Philadelphia to San Francisco, and that to propel a steamship from New York to Liverpool and return would require just about one gallon of the same." (Julius Moritzen, in the The Cosmopolitan for April 1899.)

His technical terms were bewildering, intentionally so ; `molecular vibration, ' `sympathetic equilibrium,' `oscillation of the atom, ' `etheric disintegration,' `quadruple negative harmonics,' `atomic triplets,' came glibly from his lips to confuse or to enthrall his auditors.

At that time one of the greatest steamships in operation the Teutonic of the White Star line, crossed the Atlantic in six days, driven by engines of 17000 H.P., expending about 2,500,000 H.P.- hours of energy. That is just about the amount of energy now estimated to be liberated if the hydrogen in a half-pint of water were converted into helium. Keely was far within bounds!

Public interest in the Keely Motor dates from 1874. From the first, with the use of no agents but air, water, and the machine, its inventor made pretensions and promises that were more extravagant than those of any visionary or faker that preceded him.

The claim to produce magical results by means of a thimbleful of water with appropriate juggling was not new, but, as Mr. Benjamin wrote in 1886, "a power-creating machine of no known form or mode of operation, when based on notions upset eighty years ago, is a wonderful thing. To the confusion of the skeptics, the Keely motor is here, that is, not here but to be here three weeks hence. It has been going to be here three hence for twelve years." ("The Persistence of the Keely Motor," by Park Benjamin, The Forum for June 1886.)

He ascribes the persistence of this delusion to sheer psychological perversity in that portion of the public that hesitates to put any limit to the possibilities of science, as it understands the term science.

The New Science Review for April 1895, nine years later, has an article discussing the action of the motor, entitled "The Operation of the Vibratory Circuit," by Mr. Keely himself, that is an almost incredible jumble of terms.

He anchored his analysis of nature to a fundamental "trinity." Every force and practically everything else was "triune." For him the sacred number was not seven but three.

The basic idea of Keely's theory was that if one could catch and impose upon matter, by sympathetic vibration, the extremely rapid vibration that characterizes every atom and molecule, then, by the resonance of atoms, he could effect a recombination that would liberate and incalculable amount of energy.

At the time of these experiments radioactivity and the highly radioactive substances were not known; radio-telegraphy and radio- telephony had not dawned upon us and yet, how near each other wisdom and folly may sit!

Keely's pretensions appear to have anticipated the very phenomena and powers now associated with radioactivity and wireless signaling; and when we consider the discussions and revelations of atomic energy coming as genuine science within the last two or three years, these seem like an Alpine glow of which he had some glimmering, upon inaccessible peaks which he vainly strove to reach; but again when we recollect that within a week of the close of the year 1920, a Leipsic engineer fooled many savants by fraudulent claim to have discovered a way to `liberate' (Keely's own word) and yet control that same atomic energy, we can see what an easy path to notoriety the charlatan finds along such lines.

It was not until after Keely's death that the fraudulent nature of his scheme was established. It was then brought out by an examination of his laboratory after the motor had been removed, and it was found that the extraordinary performances of his complicated machinery were controlled from a cellar in which a source of motive power was operated.

This source of power was not actually identified but pipes and connections seemed to indicate pretty plainly that it was compressed air, which could be manipulated by the demonstrator in the laboratory. Yet his real secret has never been revealed.

The motor was taken to Boston and set up, but it failed to exhibit any "etheric force" when subjected to any vibratory influence, after its removal form the laboratory in Philadelphia. For a period of more than twenty-five years did this remarkable trickster not only keep his chicanery hidden but escaped the discovery that his pretensions really were impostures, and this in the face of experts and others who witnessed tests of his machine.

Many an untrained witness was astounded by `ocular' evidence, and to such an one the doubting smile of one who had not `seen' was irritation , to say the least.

Perpetual motion continues to be achieved, but the `working model' does not appear. The machine is set going, soon comes to a stop, and consistently refuses to operate without help, a failure - the souvenir of a delusion - of no more use than the Millerite's ascension robe after the twenty-second of October, 1844.

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