Perpetual Motion and the USPTO

Perpetual motion machines are automatically disallowed patents by the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), on the grounds of being simply impossible. But that's not where the story ends, dear reader, no indeed.

Perpetual motion is a seductive idea, even though it is so clearly debunkable using the smallest amount of common sense, to say nothing of the Laws of Thermodynamics, which state as paraphrased by Robert Heinlein's immortal acronym: TANSTAAFL. There ain't no such thing as a free lunch.

Being forbidden by the laws of nature and the laws of men is surely part of the allure of the unstopping device, the unstillable wheel, free energy for all, and one imagines the USPTO is deluged with such "inventions," but have any ever made it through? The answer, friends, is yes.

Take patent 6,362,718 for example. Granted March 26, 2002, all we have to do now is sit back and wait for the inevitable cheap electricity soon to be provided by the "Motionless Electromagnetic Generator", a name which will surely be known by every school child in the future. Comprising a "magnetic generator which a need for an external power source during operation is eliminated" (sic), this device, once you crank it over with a standard battery, will keep on dishing out the watts after you disconnect the power source. It will, if you read on, produce far more than you put in.

It's a small device, too, so I am christening it the "Small Motionless Electromagnetic Generator" or SMEG. How does the SMEG produce this extra power? Read on! The SMEG is an "open, dissipative system, receiving, collecting and dissipating energy from its environment; in this case from the magnetic flux stored within the permanent magnet". So you see it isn't perpetual motion at all, the patent goes on to state, because the machine will eventually stop when the magnet becomes demagnetized.

Sharp readers will no doubt have already figured out that demagnetization could not possibly be providing the effect described, let alone the kind of power output that the patent actually describes. This is textbook perpetual motion stuff. But this is surely the first time, right? I mean we all know the patent office is overworked and all, weeding out bogus software patents, surely letting one slip by is not such a crime?

Would that it were only one. Eric Krieg, at, in a study of the subject of perpetual motion and the patent office, records that between the first grant of a patent for perpetual motion (England) in 1635 and 1903, 600 patents for such devices had been granted. Moving to modern times and away from the ancients who hadn't invented Thermodynamics yet, at least 4 times from 1900 to 2000 the USPTO has granted perpetual motion machines that great boon for the scam artist or insane inventor, an actual US patent.

And so now there's a patent for this new century with perpetual motion written all over it. This happens because a patent is not a certificate that a device will work (contrary to popular belief), and the onus is on the examiner to disprove the patent, rather than on the claimant to prove each statement. The bar is rather low, with a device only required to be "more likely than not" to work. Since it costs a non-refundable couple of grand to even ask the patent office to "look again", perpetual motion looks like it may have at least achieved perpetual status as a fixture at the USPTO.

Staking Claims, Scientific American October 2002, Graham P. Collins - input 6,362,718 for a closer look at the "SMEG"