Paul Scheerbart was a German writer and artist who lived around the turn of the twentieth century. He was perpetually broke, even though he was constantly writing books, newspaper articles, and plays. Even when he was alive he was not generally well known or successful, despite the influence his book Glass Architecture would soon garner, or the praise he would receive from eminent intellectual Walter Benjamin.
The Perpetual Motion Machine: The Story of an Invention, recently published by Wakefield Press and translated by Andrew Joron, chronicles the two and a half years Scheerbart spent trying to creating a “perpetual motion machine,” a device considered impossible to create due to its violation of the laws of thermodynamics. However, The Perpetual Motion Machine is not just a memoir. In fact, it’s pretty hard to describe what it is at all. Part-fiction, part-memoir, part-blueprints, and part-philosophical-treatise, The Perpetual Motion Machine is the intersection of art and science, presented in the form of a narrative.
The defining characteristic of the text is Scheerbert’s joyful exuberance and his almost unyielding optimism. He truly believes, despite all logic, reason, and evidence, that building a perpetual motion machine is possible, even after countless failures. He has no discernible background in science, and he has to hire a plumber to build his contraptions for him. At times he doubts himself and his work; he even gives up from time to time, but he always goes back to believing. The book even ends with Scheerbart bragging that he “succeeded in flawlessly solving the problem” . . . though he can’t tell the reader how he solved it for fear of “invalidating its registration at the patent offices.”
However, what makes The Perpetual Motion Machine occasionally transcendent are the moments when Scheerbert contemplates the ramifications, both good and bad, of his “perpet.” That is when the text bleeds from non-fiction to eerily prescient fiction—or one might say fantasy, or science fiction:
In the year 2050 A.D. there lived in the nation of Germania a general who was more malicious than all the other generals of his time put together.
At that time the Europeans were waging a great war using bombers against the Americans. Many bombing victories were achieved, thanks to the ultramodern science of war. In spite of this, the Americans continued imperturbably to survive.
Naturally this aggravated the most malicious general of his time, who held the highest power of command in Germania.
What did this monstrous person, who went by the name of Kulhmann, do as a result?
Kuhlmann worked out a plan that was supposed to inundate all of America.
He wanted to surround all of Europe with gigantic walls and then inject the waters of the Mediterranean and the Baltic into the Atlantic Ocean with the aid of two billion perpets.
The response to this barbaric plan was a single cry of horror; a peace agreement was immediately reached with America.
Through these hypothetical musings, Scheerbart effectively illustrates what I see as the joy of science: the possibility, the hope, and the expectations that come with the potential applications of a newly developed scientific theory or model. Thus, the question becomes almost more important than the answer, which when unsolved remains unknown, and therefore infinite.
This is how I understand the drive for the individual to pursue science, and The Perpetual Motion Machine is the kind of book, a very specific category to which I would also add Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, which renders the beauty of science in a way the artist can experience it. Translator Andrew Joron deserves recognition for his superb rendering of Scheerbart’s humor, joy, ego, and despair, in a language that is extremely readable but somehow still feels like it comes from a bygone age. Though the story drags when Scheerbart explains the insignificant changes he makes to his model, as the reader knows full well the project is doomed to fail, Scheerbart’s flights of fancy—and tailspins into fear—elevate The Perpetual Motion Machine into something that will likely appeal to anyone who dreams of the coming future.
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