Is it possible to build a machine that generates more power than it uses?

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Dear Cecil: Recently, while watching a weekend TV news program, I saw a short report which was treated as a light human interest piece by the reporter. It seems to me, however, that if the thrust of the story were to prove true, it would have revolutionary implications — maybe even affect the fate of civilization. On the other hand, it could also be a big scam. Here are the facts. Mr. Joseph Newman is a self-proclaimed country boy and inventor from Georgia. Using ordinary materials and basic magnetics as a catalyst, he claims to have designed and built a machine that produces more power than it consumes. The result is said to be pure, nonpolluting energy at almost no cost. Mr. Newman believes a machine of the same design, weighing about 300 pounds, could satisfy all the energy needs of an average home. However, Mr. Newman’s application for a patent was rejected by the patent office because it “smacks of perpetual motion,” which scientists declare is impossible. Mr. Newman claims to have made a new discovery which disproves currently held theories of magnetics and which might even necessitate a change in our understanding of physics. Cecil, please enlighten your loyal readers. G.K., Washington, D.C.


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Love to, G., but some days it’s like trying to light up the Grand Canyon with a flashlight. Take this Newman business. You send people to college, where presumably they learn that perpetual motion machines — devices that produce something for nothing — violate the most fundamental notions about how the world works (and to hell with physics, I’m talking common sense). Yet the first time they see some crackpot on TV they’re ready to believe the laws of the universe have been suddenly repealed. And they wonder why I get cranky.

Here’s the story. Joseph Newman of Mississippi (not Georgia) sued the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 1984 for refusing to give him a patent for his “energy output machine.” He also hired a publicist to get him on TV shows to demonstrate his machine, enabling him to sucker the gullible on a mass-production basis. “Country boy,” my arse.

Fortunately for the cause of knowledge, the court ordered the National Bureau of Standards, a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce, to test Newman’s contraption to see if it worked as advertised. Not surprisingly, it didn’t. Researchers found the machine generated only 27 to 67 percent as much energy as it consumed.

The director of the bureau’s National Engineering Laboratory said Newman’s invention, which operates on 116 nine-volt batteries, basically converts direct current into alternating current. Commercially available devices that perform a similar function operate at 90 percent efficiency or higher.

Newman, naturally, claims the tests were fixed. “I have no respect for the National Bureau of Standards,” he says. “This is a conspiracy against me.” He wants the court to order the testing of the test equipment. If that doesn’t work, no doubt he’ll demand the testing of the test equipment that tested the test equipment. These guys are so predictable.

Joe Newman update

Some years after the preceding was first published a Straight Dope reader in Mississippi sent word that Joe was in the news again. According to the Mississippi Press, Newman said he was ordered by God to marry both his 30-year-old secretary and her 8-year-old daughter. Newman complied — God presided over the ceremony — and happily notified the world in a 12-page press release. (One copy was sent to the Ayatollah Khomeini.)

The only problem — well, maybe not the only problem — was that Newman was already married to a third woman. Authorities promptly removed the eight-year-old from Joe’s home, though he said he had not consummated the marriage. Newman, who once ran for president on God’s instructions, angrily declared that this shabby treatment was going to get God really PO’ed. “I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if this does not result that God will place misery upon the state of Mississippi. … I can see the handwriting on the wall and the people of Mississippi had better wake up.”

Clearly this is one wild and crazy guy. Hope nobody out there invested too much money in his machine.

Cecil Adams

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