Paul Scheerbart, “Self-Advertisement” (1913)

The old man sprung up onto a little table in his laboratory, cleared his throat heavily, and said, “Gentlemen, I will now give a speech. I am not a practiced speaker. But I still hope that I can make myself understood.

“I maintain that Europeans and especially the Germans esteem their famous men of science too much, much too much! Whenever one of them expresses a halfway reasonable opinion or has invented something imposing, he immediately becomes an ‘authority’. Unfamous people say to themselves, ‘The man once did or said something reasonable, so everything he has to say will probably be reasonable too.’ That’s easy, gentlemen, isn’t it?

“Now let’s get to the point. A marvelous example will illustrate what I’ve said perfectly. As is well known, Robert Mayer formulated the great law of the conservation of energy very clearly in 1849. And to this incredibly modern ‘legislation’, he added the observation that a perpetual motion machine is impossible. And for sixty years, all scientists parroted it without taking any trouble to investigate the matter.

“Now, we’re not going to doubt the law of the conservation of energy. But we will definitely debate the claim that the impossibility of a load motor proceeds from this law. As is well-known, Robert Mayer was occupied with the perpetuum mobile for three full years. When he recognized that he would not be able to solve the problem himself, he said solemnly: ‘If I can’t do it, then it’s not possible! For nobody can be more clever than I am!’ This is how (or, roughly how) his really excellent book on the conservation of energy came about. What wisdom did the great Robert come up with? Only this: If a load goes down, it must be taken up again, so it cannot work perpetually if it goes down.

“However, it is still possible that a load sets a system of wheels in motion without approaching the earth. Why shouldn’t this be possible? Whatever is not found today could very well be found tomorrow. Furthermore, every millwheel in a river that is free of ice and never dries up, is already a perpetual motion machine. Admittedly, the evaporation of water takes care of taking up the load again. But the sun takes care of this process of being taken up again perpetually.

“I believe the respected physicists cannot yet position themselves or their imaginations, for the purposes of their cosmic observations, outside of the earth’s atmosphere, and, from this position, view the very strange perpetual attraction of the earth. Converting this force of attraction into perpetual motion may not be so easy: But we cannot declare it to be impossible. The principle of the conservation of energy does not affect the conversion of a force of attraction into motion. Admittedly, there are no dead forces in this world. Every object at rest exerts some pressure, and, in doing so, it does work.

“Physics may be a difficult matter. However, that does not justify anyone in claiming and believing all kinds of things for the field of this marvelous science. Furthermore, I declare that I have never met a technician who has not attempted to invent a perpetuum mobile in secret.”

The old man got down from the table and drank three cognacs without sitting down.

Then I said, “My esteemed Laboratory Director, I completely agree with you and I’ve also been working for two and a half years to invent a transportable load motor that functions perpetually only through the support of a weight. I believe I’ve done it. In any case, I’ve written a book about it, which has appeared through Rowohlt’s Press in Leipzig under the title The Perpetual Motion Machine. It has twenty-six drawings, and can be acquired in bookstores for fifty pfennig.

“That’s truly splendid!” the director said. “I congratulate you!”

“I congratulate myself too!” I said amiably.

Source: Paul Scheerbart, “Selbstanzeige,” Die Zukunft 47, no. 20 (Aug. 1913).

 

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Erik Born

I’m an Andrew W. Mellon postdoctoral fellow in the Society for the Humanities and the Department of German Studies at Cornell University. My research and teaching focuses broadly speaking on relations between old media and new media, and particularly on questions of mobility.

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