Leonardo da Vinci’s Elegant Design for a Perpetual Motion Machine

Is perpetual motion possible? In theory… I have no idea…. In practice, so far at least, the answer has been a perpetual no. As Nicholas Barrial writes at Makery, “in order to succeed,” a perpetual motion machine “should be free of friction, run in a vacuum chamber and be totally silent” since “sound equates to energy loss.” Trying to satisfy these conditions in a noisy, entropic physical world may seem like a fool’s errand, akin to turning base metals to gold. Yet the hundreds of scientists and engineers who have tried have been anything but fools.

The long list of contenders includes famed 12th-century Indian mathematician Bhāskara II, also-famed 17th-century Irish scientist Robert Boyle, and a certain Italian artist and inventor who needs no introduction. It will come as no surprise to learn that Leonardo da Vinci turned his hand to solving the puzzle of perpetual motion. But it seems, in doing so, he “may have been a dirty, rotten hypocrite,” Ross Pomery jokes at Real Clear Science. Surveying the many failed attempts to make a machine that ran forever, he publicly exclaimed, “Oh, ye seekers after perpetual motion, how many vain chimeras have you pursued? Go and take your place with the alchemists.”




In private, however, as Michio Kaku writes in Physics of the Impossible, Leonardo “made ingenious sketches in his notebooks of self-propelling perpetual motion machines, including a centrifugal pump and a chimney jack used to turn a roasting skewer over a fire.”  He also drew up plans for a wheel that would theoretically run forever. (Leonardo claimed he tried only to prove it couldn’t be done.) Inspired by a device invented by a contemporary Italian polymath named Mariano di Jacopo, known as Taccola (“the jackdaw"), the artist-engineer refined this previous attempt in his own elegant design.

Leonardo drew several variants of the wheel in his notebooks. Despite the fact that the wheel didn’t work—and that he apparently never thought it would—the design has become, Barrial notes, “THE most popular perpetual motion machine on DIY and 3D printing sites.” (One maker charmingly comments, in frustration, “Perpetual motion doesn’t seem to work, what am I doing wrong?”) The gif at the top, from the British Library, animates one of Leonardo’s many versions of unbalanced wheels. This detailed study can be found in folio 44v of the Codex Arundel, one of several collections of Leonardo’s notebooks that have been digitized and made publicly available online.

In his book The Innovators Behind Leonardo, Plinio Innocenzi describes these devices, consisting of "12 half-moon-shaped adjacent channels which allow the free movement of 12 small balls as a function of the wheel’s rotation…. At one point during the rotation, an imbalance will be created whereby more balls will find themselves on one side than the other,” creating a force that continues to propel the wheel forward indefinitely. “Leonardo reprimanded that despite the fact that everything might seem to work, ‘you will find the impossibility of motion above believed.’”

Leonardo also sketched and described a perpetual motion device using fluid mechanics, inventing the “self-filling flask” over two-hundred years before Robert Boyle tried to make perpetual motion with this method. This design also didn’t work. In reality, there are too many physical forces working against the dream of perpetual motion. Few of the attempts, however, have appeared in as elegant a form as Leonardo’s. See the fully scanned Codex Arundel at the British Library.

Related Content:

A Complete Digitization of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus, the Largest Existing Collection of His Drawings & Writings

Leonardo da Vinci’s Visionary Notebooks Now Online: Browse 570 Digitized Pages

Leonardo da Vinci’s Earliest Notebooks Now Digitized and Made Free Online: Explore His Ingenious Drawings, Diagrams, Mirror Writing & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


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  • Dave Penrose says:

    “Is perpetual motion possible? In theory… I have no idea…. In practice, so far at least, the answer has been a perpetual no…”

    Perpetual motion is most definitely NOT possible. Losses to friction will always prevent a perpetual motion device from working as claimed: Continuing in motion without additional input of energy (beyond an initial starting impetus)

  • Dave Gerwin says:

    The “pin wheel” in the animation, even not considering friction, has more balls being lifted on the right side than are falling on the left.

  • JoeSixpack says:

    “In theory… I have no idea…. ”

    How does one not know this?

    No, the answer is a resounding “NO”.

  • Josh Jones says:

    Well, lets see…

    1. I’m perfectly aware that perpetual motion has never worked in practice, and I have a standard layperson’s understanding of the reasons.

    and

    2. I am not a physicist and I do not claim to know what is possible in theory. Reality consistently turns out to be far stranger than my standard layperson’s understanding of physics leads me to believe.

    I have no idea what’s theoretically possible and it doesn’t trouble me to say so. Do you have a problem admitting you don’t know things?

  • JoeSixpack says:

    To say that one doesn’t “know” things is sort of a cop out. When we get right down to it, we can’t know much except for our own existence, and even that is bounded.

    But ONLY such a loose definition of “knowing” would allow you to pretend that there is a possibility of a perpetual motion machine. A few minutes on Google is really all it takes to see that every physicist who is qualified will tell you that the balance sheet is not going to ever add up to a profit, even if one discounts friction losses. And if you take the time, they will cheerfully explain to you WHY such a thing is impossible.

    For a perpetual motion machine to be possible, you will quickly discover, physics doesn’t have to be wrong about one or two minor points, it would have to be completely wrong at every level.

    Science doesn’t have the answer to every question (that’s why there are still scientists working), but that doesn’t mean they don’t have pretty solid answers to some questions. And this is one of them.

  • Dave Gerwin says:

    A couple of things maybe related to this, maybe not. A pendulum will continue to swing forever as long as it gets a little kick from something every cycle. The universe has been expanding since it’s formation from some massive energy release (?). Unless there is perpetual motion involved (?), it will eventually stop. Final thought just hit me. What are the sources of the kick equivalent force that keeps moons and planets rotating on their axes and revolving in their orbits. Shouldn’t there be losses in these motions also that they would collapse also? Been “out of school” to long. Will have to read up on this subject.

  • Za says:

    “Is perpetual motion possible? In theory… I have no idea…”

    – when I saw this, I unsubscribed for the whole magazine

  • Steven Pisaro says:

    I have a great idea on changing gravity into motion perpetually can not find anybody to help me build it.

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