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Perpetual Motion/Insanity and Suicide

From Kook Science

"In passing, we remark that 48 so called perpetual motion discoverers have suicided and over 500 have become insane in trying to perform the feat in the past fifty years."
Editorial comment in Mobridge News (Mobridge, South Dakota) of 18 July 1913, p. 4

If early American newspapers are to be believed, the foregoing quote was a statement taken to have some truth to it during the mania for perpetual motion of the late 19th and early 20th century. We will attempt to catalogue those souls who were lost in the search for Perpetual Motion.

Persons Who Were Institutionalised in Relation to Perpetual Motion Claims

  • Daniel W. Prows, remanded to the custody of the Ukiah Insane Asylum in 1896 over a general belief he was "the conqueror of the sun," knew the secrets of perpetual motion, &c.;
  • Henry Hoverman, reported as having "become violently insane" in 1898 after 10 years working on perpetual motion, believing himself to be God, and a machine, himself;
  • Emil Johnson, adjudged insane and incarcerated at the Topeka Insane Asylum from 1899 for seeing visions and hearing voices associated to an interest in perpetual motion and flying machines;
  • Otto Shade, an American of German descent residing at Ellsworth County, Kansas in 1900 who was adjudged insane after a violent episode at a county prison, his insanity linked to a hobby of perpetual motion;
  • William McMillan, a Scots-born carpenter residing at St. Louis, Missouri in 1901 who was treated at City Hospital, released, and later attempted to murder his wife, his condition credited to his fanatic interest in perpetual motion;
  • J. Warren Mercer, a railroad flagman who was adjudged to be insane in 1901, reportedly having been deranged by obsessive working on a perpetual motion machine;
  • Peter O. Elliott, a machinist of Scandinavian origin, who was vaguely associated with perpetual motion claims, but whose main claim to fame was his apparent attempt to assassinate President Theodore Roosevelt in October 1903;
  • Francis Henry Otto, a.k.a. Perpetual Motion Otto, a Wisconsin eccentric who was court-ordered to the state asylum in 1909 after many years of attempts at perpetual motion fund-raising;
  • Erick Ackerland, a North Dakota farmer who was court-ordered to the state asylum in 1912, which a local paper linked to his "working on the illusive perpetual motion theory, that has driven so many over the verge of sanity."

Persons Who Were Said to Have Committed Suicide in Relation to Perpetual Motion Failures

  • Louis Cornwall, a rancher in Wyoming who killed his wife and daughter then himself, said to have become insane from his "vain attempt to produce a perpetual motion machine";
  • Arthur Ward, a labourer and mechanical tinker in California who shot himself in a fit of insanity linked to his perpetual motion work;
  • Basel Saheb, a student of Syrian origin who shot himself over his failures to perfect a self-motive motor;
  • William Herford, a German-born carpenter who shot himself after falling into a depression linked to his thirty years of perpetual motion research;
  • Christopher Stanley, a mechanic and inventor at Elizabeth, New Jersey who poisoned himself due to depression allegedly brought on by his being "unable to discover perpetual motion";
  • August Nelson, who was reported to have hung himself from "disappointment over his failure to perfect a perpetual motion device";
  • Karl Bryner, a watchmaker of Swiss origin who shot himself with a high-powered rifle.