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Reading Room 220: The Perpetual Motion Machine

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Last spring, Press Street unveiled in a soft opening the new Reading Room 220 on the first floor of our headquarters on St. Claude Avenue. The community space—which hosts events, adult writing workshops, Big Class activities, and more—includes a collection of quality books and periodicals that span subject, format, and genre. Many are from independent publishers and are not readily available in bookstores and libraries around town. As we continue to acquire books and catalog and organize our collection (which will soon be available for your perusal on Goodreads), we will feature some of the noteworthy publications that you can find at the Reading Room 220.

The Perpetual Motion Machine: The Story of an Invention
by Paul Scheerbart
Wakefield Press

First published in German in 1910 and most recently translated by Wakefield Press, The Perpetual Motion Machine by Paul Scheerbart is a story that reaches into the imaginative and humanistic strains shared by science and literature. For two and a half years, Scheerbart—a German philosopher, writer, and enthusiast of glass architecture and all things astral—chronicles his manic attempts to transcend the laws of physics and invent, or “discover,” a self-propelled machine that can work indefinitely.

But Scheerbart is a less-than-amateur engineer, and rather than delve too deeply into the mechanical details of the hypothetical machine (though the book includes his various diagrams), he celebrates and laments the potential of his efforts. As he understands it, if he succeeds, “everything is possible,” yet there remains, “the shadow side of this new epoch.” The machine may solve issues of energy conservation, but that only frees people to churn up more land for development—he recognizes such wagers are inherent to his project. In his struggle against the law of the conservation of energy, he affirms that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Out of Scheerbart’s obsessive process comes a cosmology of sorts, as he contemplates the end of labor, how to spend his future riches, and the movements of the planets and stars. Translator Andrew Joron writes an introduction suitable for a man he calls “a perpetual motion machine in his own right,” and renders Scheerbart’s words with the force of his personality. Early in the book Scheerbart says, “One always forgets so much in the course of a narrative.” This is to say that all failures do not lack invention.

The Perpetual Motion Machine and other titles from the Imagining Science series were generously donated to the Reading Room 220 by Wakefield Press.

This article was reposted from Press Street: Room 220, a NolaVie content partner.