In September 1870, Harvey Fowler, a clerk in the U.S. Treasury Department's Bureau of Statistics, patented a "Mechanical Hand-Motor," an arrangement of weighted pendulums and coiled springs meant to give "motion to machinery, or to the driving-wheels of a car or carriage." In December 1871, Fowler received a patent for a marine application of his motor, the "Hand Propeller for Canal Boats."
Fowler continued to think about the use of weights and levers to generate mechanical motion over the next decade. In May 1880 he took out a want ad in the Washington Post. "Perpetual motion machine now in operation...partner wanted," it read. A curious reporter showed up at Fowler's workshop, 633 F Street, N.W., to investigate, and his visit gives us an unusual portrait of the inventor. He "was evidently an old man, although a fresh, unwrinkled, almost boyish face gave him a youthful appearance, while the old-fashioned, broad-brimmed hat and the black clothes shining with age imparted a Quaker-like air of honesty and respectability. His voice, mild and gentle, confirmed these impressions and when he talked he fumbled in a tremulous fashion among the tools and scraps on his work table." The advertised perpetual-motion machine was "a mass of jointed sticks running in all directions....Here and there is a wheel and then two pieces connected by rubber bands." It was not working during the reporter's visit. Fowler "briefly explained how it would work when it was right and the possibility seemed to give him as genuine satisfaction as if it was running smoothly at that very minute, and the applause of the world was already his."
Fowler's inventing came to an end the next year when he was committed to the Government Hospital for the Insane. "His mind has become deranged," the Post reported, "through his efforts to produce a perpetual motion machine."
Harvey Fowler, Propulsion of Canal-Boats, patent no. 121,714, Dec. 12, 1871.
Boyd's Directory of Washington, 1869 and 1871.
Boyd's Directory of the District of Columbia, 1880 and 1881.
Wanted ads, Washington Post, May 13, 1880, 2.
"Seeking Perpetual Motion," Washington Post, May 16, 1880, 8.
"Crazed by Perpetual Motion," Washington Post, Nov. 21, 1881, 1.