Thursday, 15 March 2012
A lot of people have repeated what they believe to be a famous Newton quote, "Sir Isac Newton once observed that the seekers after perpetual motion are trying to get something from nothing." Now I have always been suspicious of the authenticity of this attribution for three reasons, firstly, it doesn't fit with Newton's early notes about the potential for a gravity-enabled perpetual motion machine, see my blog on Monday, 12 March 2012. I spent a lifetime researching documents relating to Bessler and in particular, anything connected with professor Gravesande's letter to Newton on the subject of Bessler's wheel. In all the years I looked I found just one reference to perpetual motion as a potential machine and I have commented on that in the above blog. There is absolutely no documentary evidence that Newton said anything else about the subject either in writing or as a reported conversation.
Secondly the language is completely un-Newtonesqe. By that I mean the language phrasing and style is entirely unlike anthing that Newton is quoted as saying elsewhere. Here are some well-known examples of his words:-
"I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."
"If I have seen further than certain other men it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants."
"I keep the subject of my inquiry constantly before me, and wait till the first dawning opens gradually, by little and little, into a full and clear light."
"If I have ever made any valuable discoveries, it has been owing more to patient attention, than to any other talent."
There are dozens of websites providing examples of Newtons words, and these prove the point.
Thirdly, the first time I came across the quote was in Frank Edward's book, "Strangest of All", in which he recounts the legend of Bessler's wheel, with one or two additional inventions of his own. Because recently this quote has resurfaced I decided once and for all to either verify it as genuine or prove that it is nothing more than a piece of artistic license - Artistic licence is a colloquial term, sometimes euphemism, used to denote the distortion of fact, alteration of the conventions of grammar or language, or rewording of pre-existing text made by an artist to improve a piece of art. [thanks to wikipedia].
We already know that Frank Edwards invented the story about Karl seeing pegs in Bessler's wheel and rushing away to write down a description of what he saw, so it is perfectly reasonable to attribute the quote he ascribes to Newton as in fact another of his own creations.
In order to check out my theory I have searched through many, many web sites looking for every Newton quote available, and there is nothing remotely similar to the one being discussed. I have also sought other sources for the quote but everyone is almost word for word the same as the one in Frank Edward's book and none of the ones I have seen pre-date Edward's - in most cases the quotation is prefixed with the words, 'Sir Isaac Newton once observed....' a perfect match to Edward's words - or 'Newton is reputed to have said...'
There is no such quotation mentioned in the earlier book on Bessler, R.T.Gould's book, 'Oddities', yet this compendium of legends is replicated in its entirety in Frank Edward's version, and obviously formed the basis for his book.
It seems that before there was Coast to Coast AM with Art Bell and George Noory, there was Frank Edwards of the Mutual Network, with one of the earliest late night national radio talk shows exploring mysterious topics. He called his program, "Stranger than Science," and covered everything from Bigfoot to UFOs. If the story lacked impact then I guess a little poetic license could spice it up.
I was fascinated to discover how widespread this quotation has become, thanks largely to the internet. Even the arch-critic of perpetual motionists, Donald Simanek, [see http://www.lhup.edu/~dsimanek/home.htm] uses it.
If you put the whole sentence, "Sir Isaac Newton once observed that the seekers after perpetual motion are trying to get something from nothing." in inverted commas into google you get nothing, if you remove the words (or the quote marks) Sir Isaac Newton once observed that, you get about 217 pages, but if you put Sir Isaac Newton's quotes you get 223,000 pages! The 217 are merely copies which originated in Frank Edwards book.
It may be that Edward's was confusing Leonardo da Vinci's comment, "Oh, ye seekers after perpetual motion, how many vain chimeras have you pursued? Go and take your place with the alchemists!", but it is not the same thing at all and hardly of equal literary value.
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