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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Comments (15)
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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.


    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.

  • toni says:

    It is pos­si­ble of course, if you want to know how, send a pri­vate mes­sage

  • mohan kumar says:

    Yes it is poss­si­ble and i am build­ing it.

  • bob says:







  • Bob Z says:

    It is pos­si­ble purpet­u­al motion

  • Joseph says:

    If per­pet­u­al motion is impos­si­ble, which it is, then how in the world do you think that it is pos­si­ble for us to live on a spin­ning ball? It is impos­si­ble to live on a ball spin­ning through so-called space and mil­lions miles an hour while we’re being sucked down by some imag­i­nary force that we call grav­i­ty. You can’t say one thing and then believe in the oth­er you con­tra­dict your­self and you just sounds ridicu­lous­ly stu­pid. Please peo­ple use your brains before you reply to this.

  • Rahul says:

    Hei. Wan­na Share Your Idea? I Have One Too. Maybe We Could Impro­vise?

  • Ken Behrendt says:

    Strange that there is no men­tion here of Johann Bessler (1680 to 1745) who con­struct­ed sev­er­al “self-mov­ing” wheels that were pub­licly demon­strat­ed and offi­cial­ly test­ed and PROVEN to work. Here is a com­put­er sim­u­la­tion of the design he used that was recent­ly redis­cov­ered:


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