Perpetual motion - from Leonardo da Vinci to the present day

9.15am to 6.30pm, Saturday 15 February

The Library

The Royal Institution of Great Britain GB United Kingdom W1S 4BS 21 Albemarle Street London

This event has already taken place

  • Thomas Young's perpetual motion machine

    Credit: Royal Institution
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Standard £25

Event description

In the present century, perpetual motion and perpetual motion machines have a leery reputation. They have been outlawed by the rise of the scientific concept of energy in the nineteenth century.

In Leonardo's day, perpetual motion machines were not seen as contrary to the way nature worked. Moreover, the Universe as a whole was believed to rotate about the Earth once every 24 hours. This left open the possibility that perpetual circular motion could be created on Earth. Perhaps forces from the Heavens could drive terrestrial machines?

The conference will examine the starting point and trace some of the changes in the understanding of machines and of the natural world that gradually ground down such hopes.

We shall consider clockmakers' efforts to reduce friction and shall examine encounters between various machines and current scientific theories, up to the time (in the mid nineteenth century) when it became possible for an engineer to write a history of perpetual motion as if the matter were now settled. That did not put paid to claims it was not, but we end with a machine that is apparently proposed as a puzzle rather then a proof.

This conference is organised by the Royal Institution and the Leonardo da Vinci Society. For more information, please see the following site, or contact


0915-1015 Registration, tea/coffee
1015  Charlotte New (Royal Institution), Welcome
1030 Martin Kemp (Univ. of Oxford), 'On the Move; Leonardo's notion of impetus in the Codex Leicester'
1115 Philip Steadman (University College London), 'The thermoscope and perpetual motion: Philo, Hero, Leonardo and Drebbel'
1200 J V Field (Birkbeck, Univ. of London), 'Heliocentrism, Force and Inertia'

1245 LUNCH (not provided, there are many restaurants and cafés nearby)

1400 Michael Wright, 'Clockwork'
1445 Sophie Waring (Science Museum, London), 'The Board of Longitude: A Practical Institution weighed down by Impractical Proposals'
1530 Ben Marsden (Univ. of Aberdeen), 'Rethinking perpetual motion in the age of energy: W. J. M. Rankine, William Thomson (Kelvin), Henry Dircks and engineering science'


1645 Rupert Cole (Science Museum, London), 'Of Props and Prophets: Eric Laithwaite, perpetual motion and anti-establishment science in 1970s Britain'
1730 Martyn Poliakoff FRS (Univ. of Nottingham), 'Daedalus, DREADCO and a perpetual motion machine' (TBC)
1815 Closing remarks

1830 END


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The closest underground station is Green Park, which is step-free.

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In partnership with the Da Vinci Society

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