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Newton spent much of his life in the fruitless pursuit of alchemy, but along the way discovered and worked-out much else that was real, practical science. And I was thinking about why it is that we can safely dismiss anyone who claims to have invented a perpetual motion machine, but then I thought: even when we fail to achieve a goal, sometimes we succeed in something else.

Is there any record of new science or engineering being discovered by someone who was otherwise trying to build the impossible, even if they failed at said goal? Maybe they invented a new low-friction ball bearing, or discovered a new phenomenon with energy transfer.

Surely out of all the cranks and all of the gadgets they built, one of them must have had something good that was salvagable. I'm interested in this for historical and rhetorical purposes; I'd love to have a good example of how a crackpot can be redeemed, even if by accident.

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A Big List, but sufficiently physic focus that I will not close it. Community Wiki is a must, however. –  dmckee Jul 4 '11 at 20:36
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2 Answers

Simon stevin (1550-1620) was the first to analyse perpetual motion machines in what we would now call a scientific manner - he invented a lot of force analysis and almost invented thermodynamics doing this

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If you want a list of crackpots that were redeemed, you are barking up the wrong tree. Perpetual motion machines were a 19th century phenomenon, like squaring the circle or serialized novels. They were popular because the science of magnetism was not well developed, and the principles of conservation of energy were not 100% clear for velocity dependent forces. There is nothing at all worthwhile in any of them.

If you want crackpots who were redeemed by history, here is a list. There is a longer list at Vixra.org:

  • Wegener's idea of continental drift was considered crackpottery, essentially until it was discovered to be correct, and even afterwards for a while.
  • Bequerel's ideas were dismissed as perpetual motion, since he claimed Uranium has an inexhaustible source of energy. The idea that radioactivity is a hoax took many years to dispel.
  • Einstein was working in isolation outside of academia in 1905. One of his early paper proposes that light is made of particles. This was considered crackpottery at the time, and even Max Planck, who championed Einstein's other work, apologized for the photon paper to his colleagues. Einstein was essentially alone in believing in photons until the detailed photoelectric experimentes of Millikan in 1919 and the Compton effect experiments shortly after. Einstein is the king of crackpots.
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protected by Qmechanic Jan 27 '13 at 19:29

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