"Joseph Newman's device," as government scientists gingerly refer to the contraption, may be the most successful perpetual motion machine ever invented.
Not that scientists are convinced it really works. It's just that it has succeeded in getting more attention, much of it exasperated, from the Commerce Department's Patent and Trademark Office, from scientists at the National Bureau of Standards, from the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia and from the news media than any such device in recent memory.
Newman, a self-taught inventor from Lucedale, Miss., has been battling for nearly seven years to obtain a patent on his machine, which he claims produces more electrical energy than it consumes from a battery pack.
The patent office, without testing the device, rejected his application on the grounds that the invention's claimed ability contradicts accepted laws of nature, specifically the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
Newman, arguing that his invention does not contradict scientific law but instead taps a previously unknown source of energy, has sued the patent office. The trial is scheduled for December.
Patent office officials will not comment on the Newman affair but do say that lawsuits from disgruntled inventors are rare. Of 120,000 patent applications received in a typical year, about 40,000 are rejected, but the office is sued only about 100 times a year. Newman's suit is the only one patent officials can remember in which the invention was judged impossible because it would violate a law of nature.
The court ordered Newman to submit his machine for testing by the National Bureau of Standards, also a Commerce agency, which has long experience in evaluating electrical equipment.
After spending more than $75,000 to test the device, the bureau last week submitted a 36-page report to the court that concluded, "At all conditions tested, the input power exceeded the output power. That is, the device did not deliver more energy than it used." The machine's efficiency varied according to the test conditions, with output ranging between 27 percent and 67 percent of the energy consumed.
Newman alleges that the bureau rigged its test to obscure the machine's true performance and vows that if the District Court rules against him, he will carry his fight for a patent to the Supreme Court. He asserts that the science establishment is so beholden to its own interpretation of the Second Law that it cannot accept his "revolutionary" discovery.
In colloquial terms, the Second Law of Thermodynamics says that you can't get something for nothing. More formally, it says that in every process some of the energy consumed is lost forever, most commonly as heat. The amount of energy put out by any machine, therefore, is equal to the amount put in minus certain unavoidable losses within the system.
Although the greatest minds in physics have repeatedly affirmed the Second Law, this has not stopped some inventors from thinking that, if they are clever enough, they can find a design that eliminates all internal power losses.
Newman claims to have gone one better by making a machine that creates additional energy. Newman says that in his own lab, his devices are 400 to 500 percent efficient, putting out four to five times as much energy as they take in.
The key, Newman says, is that his machine, like an atomic reactor or a hydrogen bomb, converts matter into energy. The matter in this case is something Newman discovered and named "gyroscopic particles." These, according to Newman's theory of atomic physics, are building blocks of the usual subatomic particles -- protons, neutrons and electrons.
Newman's discovery has not been embraced by the scientific community. However, he says his experiments have convinced him that gyroscopic particles exist in all forms of matter and that his machine simply captures their energy and channels it into wires as electricity.
"I'm just an old country boy," Newman says. "I've never had a physics course or an electrical engineering course in my life. But I do know what I see and anybody with conventional equipment for measuring power can see for himself that it works."
Newman's machine consists of four main parts -- a battery pack containing 116 nine-volt batteries wired in series to put out about 1,000 volts, a large coil of wire that becomes an electromagnet when hooked to the batteries, a permanent magnet that spins like an electric motor in response to the electromagnet, and a commutator, a wheel with electrical contacts that spins with the magnet and repeatedly connects and disconnects the power supply to the coil and also repeatedly reverses the flow of the battery power.
Despite the elaborate design, the Bureau of Standards report says, the device performed with less efficiency than would a simple pair of wires, which would deliver nearly all the energy put into them.
The report also says that because of the way the device works -- rapidly starting, stopping and reversing the flow -- it produces sharp "spikes" in energy output that give spuriously high readings on conventional measuring equipment. The bureau says it had to find special equipment to get accurate readings.
It is this use of special equipment that Newman says was an attempt to hide his device's true performance. He says the bureau first used ordinary equipment and then, seeing a high output that would show their colleagues in the patent office to be wrong, found other equipment to produce a lower reading.
"I'm not fighting for myself," Newman said. "This is for humanity. It's obvious what a thing like this would mean."
Whether it will be obvious to the U.S. District Court is another question.