Impossible Inventions: The Inventors' Wish List

By Patrick J. Kiger

FOR CENTURIES, legions of tinkerers in basement workshops have dreamed of achieving fame and fortune by creating inventions that would not only change the world, but rewrite the laws of physics and engineering textbooks. But to their continuing frustration, many, if not most, of those paradigm-shifting gadgets have never been able to get very far past drawings or early prototypes. A skeptic might conclude that this failure stems from their utter impossibility, but nevertheless, for the would-be Edisons and Marconis out there, hope springs eternal. Here are a few of these yet-unrealized ambitions.

  • Fuel-Free Energy

    James Watt’s development of a practical steam engine in the late 1700s helped drive the Industrial Revolution, but practically since then, other would-be game-changers have dreamed of generating power without the need for costly fuel, or even the harnessing of the sun or wind. In the mid to late 1800s, John Ernst Worrell Keely claimed to have developed a means of generating power from a force that he drew from the atoms in water and air, by a secret process which he variously called “etheric force” and “vibratory sympathy.” Keely managed to convince scores of investors, including John Jacob Astor, to bankroll his efforts to produce the mysterious innovation, and he actually demonstrated a prototype for representatives of Western Union and the Manhattan Elevated Railway company. After his death the following year, however, scientists who examined his lab equipment for the first time concluded that Keely’s device had been a clever fraud. Since then, others have proposed a variety of miraculous new methods of energy generation, but none seem to have panned out.

    Image Courtesy of the Library of Congress
  • Perpetual Motion

    The Holy Grail for many tinkerers at the turn of the 20th Century was creating a machine that could run indefinitely without any additional power input. U.S. Patent officials were flooded with so many applications for patents on perpetual motion devices that they instituted a rule that any such application had to be accompanied by a working model of the device, which would be required to run in the patent office for an entire year without stopping.

    Image Courtesy of Public Domain
  • Anti-Gravity

    In 1929, according to this New York Times article, an Ohio researcher named Thomas Townsend Brown announced that he had developed a “gravitator” that somehow made mass move by tapping into the energy within it. If the scores of conspiracy-theory books and web sites devoted to antigravity are to be believed, Brown went on to develop a design for a flying saucer with antigravity propulsion for the military, but the technology was for some mysterious reason suppressed. In 2005, due to an apparent breach in U.S. Patent officials’ longstanding aversion to applications that challenge the accepted laws of physics, an Indiana inventor was granted U.S. Patent 6960975 for a design for a “Space Vehicle Propelled By the Pressure of Inflationary Vacuum Space.” In a subsequent article on the patent in the scientific journal Nature, physicist Robert Park, an official with the American Physical Society in Washington, DC, accused patent officials of being duped by false science.

    Image Courtesy of United States Patent and Trademark Office
  • The Atom-Powered [Insert Name of Object Here]

    In the 1950s and early 1960s era when nuclear energy was widely seen as the power source of the future, visionaries predicted homes with nuclear furnaces and even nuclear-powered vacuum sweepers. For an automobile show, Ford even created a 3/8 model of a nuclear car, the Nucleon, which was to be powered by a small nuclear reactor mounted in the vehicle’s rear.

    Image © Ford Motor Company

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