Ice skaters on an outdoor rink

How John Gamgee’s perpetual motion machine fooled a president

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Engineers don’t get to choose what they are remembered for and mistakes often resonate more strongly than success. Rarely has this been more so than in the case of John Gamgee.

John Gamgee was, without doubt, a brilliant man. Educated in Italy, Germany and Switzerland, he came from a family of biologists that had surgeons, biochemists and naturalists among its ranks. He decided to take up veterinary practice and plunged in with enormous enthusiasm. He toured European schools and built up a reputation in the study of contagious diseases. Back in England, however, Gamgee found the work frustrating. The science of veterinary medicine was not highly regarded among practising vets, whose work was almost entirely practical. After some unsuccessful collaboration and despite having no capital, Gamgee decided to set up his own veterinary school in Edinburgh.

A successful career began. With his interest in contagious diseases, Gamgee was appointed by the Privy Council to study a problem in cattle. He identified the threat of rinderpest from imported Baltic cows. Despite his warnings, the disease duly arrived in imported livestock, leading to the great cattle plague of 1865. The following year the government took action, based largely on Gamgee’s plan, and the cattle industry was saved. Yet Gamgee’s business was not. Having moved to London, he was so consumed with studying animal disease that he let his own business drift. By the time he returned from the USA, where he’d gone to study Texas fever, it was teetering on bankruptcy. Then Gamgee’s unlikely engineering odyssey started.

Gamgee gave up veterinary medicine. A new interest – refrigeration – had taken hold during his travels and he decided this would be his life. He had initially been looking to perfect a method for refrigerating ships to allow Australia and New Zealand to export meat to Britain. The first inkling the public got of this was in a small building off King’s Road in Chelsea where, on 7 January 1876, Gamgee opened his first artificial ice rink. The rink was a concrete base covered with layers of earth, cow hair and timber, supporting a network of copper pipes carrying a refrigerating solution of glycerine, ether, nitrogen peroxide and water. This was all submerged in a thin layer of water, which duly froze, creating the ‘Glaciarium’.

The Glaciarium was initially a great success, a members-only experience for the London elite, complete with Alpine frescoes, a viewing gallery and an orchestra. Further rinks followed but, once the novelty wore off, customers moved on and the rinks shut.

But Gamgee had caught the refrigeration bug. Back in the US, he began advising mining companies on technology to cool mines and finally had the chance to begin developing refrigerated shipping units. It was at sea that he had his most unique and unfortunate idea for which he is remembered – the zeromotor.

You can almost hear the laws of thermodynamics being broken in the name alone and that’s exactly what was happening. Gamgee’s idea was to power a ship using a modified refrigeration system that would require no fuel, but harness the heat of the air and ocean. The machine operated, in theory, using warmth from the surroundings to boil ammonia, which expanded and drove a piston – nothing questionable in that. Yet the next part was unusual. The sudden expansion was meant to make the ammonia spontaneously condense, aided by vapour passing through pipes in contact with the colder sea water. Thus the ammonia would become liquid again and the process would repeat, forever, with no external fuel source.

It was a tempting prospect and Gamgee’s enthusiasm was such that he persuaded the Chief Engineer of the US Navy and President Garfield to support the design. However, even US Presidents can’t break the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The fatal flaw in Gamgee’s plan was failing to understand that condensing ammonia vapour would require cooling it to well below ambient temperature, to -33°C, something which would require more energy than was obtained from the piston stroke.

Now Gamgee was not a fraud and seemed to firmly believe his motor would work. Perhaps he misunderstood the operation of a water-sourced heat pump, or simply couldn’t accept the laws of thermodynamics, but he remained unwavering in his belief in his overunity machine. He died back in London, wracked with financial worries from the failure of his would-be world-changing machine, and was forever associated with an impossible idea. A shame for the man who saved the British cattle industry and brought us New Zealand lamb and ice skating.

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