Sympathetic Physics

John Worrell Keely and his invention.

Poking my head out of the woods for one little bit of good news: Technology & Culture has just published my article, “Sympathetic Physics: The Keely Motor and the Laws of Thermodynamics in Nineteenth-Century Culture.” It’s about the Keely Motor, which was the most notorious perpetual motion hoax of the 19th-century–unless, of course, it was real. Technology & Culture is probably the leading journal in the history of technology, and I’ve been wanting to publish an article there for years. I’m delighted that the first one I did was this one, which I think is both smart and a lot of fun. 

My article is focused on the “work” this impossible motor performed–not physical work, but financial, cultural, and psychological–for its inventor John Keely, his critics, and his supporters, especially the author and heiress Clara Bloomfield Moore, and also on the cultural work performed by the newly-articulated laws of thermodynamics, which of course the Keely Motor defied.

But this will not be my last word on Keely, Moore, and the Motor. I’m actually trying to write a whole book on the Motor, a really readable book for a general audience that does justice to the wonderful craziness of its story. It’s got con artists and speculators, spiritualists and ghosts, deception and self-deception, Gilded Age social combat, mystical 19th-century pseudo-physics, dangerous 19th-century pseudo-medicine, people claiming to have split the atom in 1889, the secret history of the laws of thermodynamics, two beautiful sisters marrying two sinister European noblemen, a closeted gay son, a young mother locked in an asylum (the finest asylum in Europe, mind you) in a plot to steal her inheritance, a steampunk sea-monster designed to scare Native Americans (it didn’t), cameos by Nikola Tesla, John Jacob Astor IV, and Helena Blavatsky, and a fantastic machine that would have changed absolutely everything, if it hadn’t been a fake. An editor I described the project to said it sounded like “Erik Larson, but with mad science instead of true crime,” and that’s exactly what I’m going for.

This article isn’t that; it’s written for professional historians of technology, so it’s considerably more technical and academic than a popular audience would want, but it’s a way of sticking my flag in the subject, and I do think some of the story’s marvelous madness peeks through.

The article starts like this:

In Philadelphia in 1873, a tradesman and tinkerer named John Worrell Keely announced that he had invented, or was just about to invent, a fantastic new motor unlike any the world had ever seen. When completed, Keely promised, his motor would drive locomotives without heat or smoke, power factories without coal, and propel ships across the Atlantic using only a teacup of water for fuel. Keely spent the next twenty-five years on the verge of perfecting this marvelous machine. Hundreds witnessed demonstrations of his prototypes, and thousands more came to believe there must be something to his claims. At least three Keely Motor Companies were formed; the parent company attracted hundreds of thousands of dollars in investment (some say millions) and gained national renown. By the end of his life, Keely claimed to have split the atom and promised to defy gravity. Some said the Keely Motor would bring about world peace and cure all known disease.


It is a shame it never worked.

By the way, the best extant book on the Keely Motor is Theo Paijmans’ exhaustively researched and preternaturally evenhanded Free Energy Pioneer: John Worrell Keely.

My article is indebted to the graduate students in my Writing History seminar, writing coach Jo VanEvery, Technology & Culture associate editor Barbara Hahn, T&C’s anonymous reviewers, and the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada. If you have university access to T&C, you can read the published article here. If you don’t have access, get in touch and I will send you the final pre-publication manuscript.