Screen Reviews


directed by Jon Fox

starring Joseph Newman

Every few years a new perpetual motion machine appears, and it inevitably turns up a fraud or a delusion. Joseph Newman made one; he lived in the backwoods Mississippi and his claim to inventing fame was a patent for the plastic-coated barbell. His next product was a weird looking electrical machine that ran off batteries and supposedly produced more energy than it took in, and seeming competent engineers agreed. This documentary follows the story from his discovery by a local television station in New Orleans to the halls of Congress. Numerous engineers agreed his mechanism worked as claimed, although none offer any sort of evidence in this film. We see pictures of electrical test equipment, but no data, and if this contraption really puts out net energy gain, why do you need the batteries? This doc fails when it mentions and yet doesn’t pursue the wildest of his claims: The Second Law of Thermodynamics doesn’t apply here. Were that true, the Nobel committee would come knocking.

Newman needed investors to mass produce this machine and his investors wanted patent protection. The US Patent Office does not issue perpetual motion patents but Newman set off to challenge them. Their ex-director fails to make the Patent Office look very good; he seems to know nothing about what his examiners did or why. The Federal courts investigate then soundly rebuff Newman at every level. Obviously, this is a conspiracy by Big Energy, Big Patents, and Big Everything else. Eventually Newman becomes delusional, gets advice directly from God, then he disappears for a decade or so. We meet Newman as a tired and broken man, divorced and rooming with a friend. The latest version of the machine is locked up in a storage unit, and he drives away potential investors with wild abuse. They should thank him for that. As the film ends Newman screams obscenities at the camera and threatened to punch out the director. A sad story, indeed.

It’s also a rather stilted story; Director Fox emphasis the conspiracy theory but spends little time looking into how this machine might change the laws of physics. Even the engineers he interviews seem reluctant to broach that thorny subject. And while a patent is a nice thing to have, there are tons of successful inventions that the Patent Office never saw; trade secrets can be held forever. Newman is an electrifying figure and I’ll cut him the slack if self-delusional; but ultimately he was a fraud with a weak grasp of physics but a pugnacious knack for showmanship.

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