Alchemical Perpetuum Mobile

Jacob de Graeff (1571-1638) was an Amsterdam mayor and alchemist, who had based his alchemy lab in his house on Herengracht. Together with his friend Pieter Hooft (1575-1636) they built a perpetual motion machine, which was later exhibited by Cornelius Drebbel (1572-1633) at the English court. Drebbel was an alchemist and inventor himself, remembered most notably for the invention of the first navigable submarine in 1620.

First demonstrated in late 1604, the fame of the Perpetuum Mobile spread rapidly. It combined two features, first, a self-winding astronomical almanac showing the date and the phases of the moon, and second, a cylindrical ring in which water moved endlessly to and fro.

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For Drebbel and De Graeff alike the principles of alchemy were essential in the development of the perpetuum mobile. They saw the machine in mystical or alchemical terms, and their mindset was greatly influenced by the Rosicrucian tendency of anticipating the new times of great radical changes in both scientific methods and social structure. The instrument’s secret, as Drebbel himself put it, was ‘the fiery spirit of the air’. Perhaps the glass cylinder was filled not with mere air, but with oxygen produced by heating saltpetre, or nitre, which Drebbel was convinced held the secret to chemical transformations of many kinds. All of this points to the fact that while today alchemy is widely considered a pseudo-science at best, back in the 17 century it was still at the cutting edge of scientific revolution and innovation.

Above is the earliest schematic depiction of the wonder and below is an excerpt from a letter of an eyewitness:

A gentleman being Dutch born, and dwelling at Ipswitch, hath made a continual motion of this bigness and size as near as I could guess: the work is this, a ball or round globe, ever standing without moving, and upon the north and south sides a dial, within like unto clock or some dial, both which moving and shewing the courses of the heavens, round about the east and west parts doth a ring or hollow trunke of christall stand, and that without moving, and the same filled to his halfe with fayre water, which without any inforcement, that can be perceived, doth ebb and flow with the Seas in every part of the world. My self stayed so longe that I sawe it ascend up the trunk a good height and left the lower compasse of the ringe empty. The man is very religious, and of an exceeding good repute of the inhabitants, and himself to me affirmed upon his faith, that it should so evermore, without any more help of man for hundreds of years, if it were not broken …