Today is Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Perpetual motion wheel still turns heads

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The sign beside the wheel, protected behind Plexiglas, proclaims: Asa Jacksons Fabulous Perpetual Motion Machine which he designed and built in the mid-1800s to produce its own powerand run forever.{phocagallery view=category|categoryid=96|imageid=650|displayname=0|float=right}

The two wheels were hanging in my daddys shop all my life, said Lebanons Doug Jackson, who, with his late brother John Jackson and two nephews, sold the remains of the odd contraption in 1994 to John Rice Irwin, founder of the Museum of Appalachia.

My great-great-grandfather (Asa Jackson) and some of his brothers and sons had invented a threshing machine, and they had a factory in Murfreesboro. The reason for the perpetual motion machine was to run the threshing machinery. They were secretive about it and built it in a cave when the Civil War started, Doug said.

Local legend suggests that Asa kept his machine in Black Cat Cave near Murfreesboro, across the road from the V.A. Hospital. Whenever he left the cave, the story goes, he took the machine apart so that if anyone stumbled upon it, they would not be able to figure out how it operated.

After the Civil War, the Jackson familys threshing factory burned, thus the machine was obsolete. Asa died in 1870, so his invention was stored in a shed on the family farm where hungry rats and time took their toll on the wooden device and many parts of the machine were damaged.

My great-grandmother kept what was left of the machine in an outbuilding on their farm in Leeville. They said it ran for a month, but if you put a load on it, it stopped. It wouldnt pull anything, Doug said.

After she died, my Daddy (Jack Jackson) got it. It was basically wood but for the springs. He had a welding shop on Gay Street. He set it up but many of the parts were heavily damaged.

Jack Jackson, also a welder and possessing a keen mind like Asa, went on to bigger and better projects. In 1949, he invented a tobacco setter which sold by the thousands.

When he moved his shop in 1950 to Hartsville Pike, he kept the two wheels and a box of parts, and he got rid of the rest of it. He didnt have room to store it, Doug recollected.

{phocagallery view=category|categoryid=96|imageid=649|displayname=0}Welder-inventor Jack Jackson died in August 1994 at 85. Two months later, the Museum of Appalachias Irwin came calling. He studied it hanging in Jacksons workshop, struck a deal and returned to the museum with the two wheels and more than 150 unattached pieces.

The frame of it was 25 feet by 25 feet. I never could get John Rice to understand that those two wheels were just a very small part of it. He got engineers from Oak Ridge to try to figure it out. Of course, they couldnt because they didnt have it all, said Doug, who worked in his fathers shop from the age of 8 to 28 before going to work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for 28 years.

Asas handiwork draws long, focused looks from the thousands of tourists who annually trek to the Museum of Appalachia as well as the scrutiny of scientists.

We wanted to make it a focal point in our main exhibit building. We have Plexiglas on all four sides so you can see it from any angle, said Elaine Meyer, president of the museum and the daughter of its founder.

I think it garners more interest and more questions than answers, and people are fascinated by it and the whole story. We have had scientists from all over the country as well as from several different countries who come and study it. They measure it and take pictures and make drawings.

John Rice Irwin was not alone in his astonishment for the intricacies of Asa Jacksons creation. David W.R. Brown, a retired computer programmer in Tampa, Fla., also became infatuated with the machine.

I went into the museum, and I was standing looking at it, and the hair on my arms was standing up. I was awestruck by how beautiful the wheel was, how complicated. I said to the director, That is an amazing piece of machinery, fine work for the 1860s.

Brown, who was thunderstruck by the delicacy of the machine, spent hundreds of hours studying Jacksons masterpiece before writing The Asa Jackson Perpetual Motion Wheel. Featuring the complete specifications, more than 90 detailed drawings and a companion CD with more than 500 photographs, the book is sold at the Museum of Appalachia with proceeds going to the museum.

Ive been working on perpetual motion for about 50 years. I have built maybe 100 different contraptions. I think the next is going to work though, Brown said with a laugh during the phone interview.

An interesting thing about this wheel, Asa Jacksons machine had almost no correction to it, which leads me to believe it was version 3.0, Brown said. I think he represented the American spirit of inventiveness which was quite afoot back at that time. I think he saw an opportunity there, and Im sure he was in it for the money, not for a Nobel Prize. He saw a need for it.{phocagallery view=category|categoryid=96|imageid=651|displayname=0|float=left}

Likewise, Irwin saw a need to place it in his museum.

Ive heard John Rice (Irwin) say that it was the most prized possession in his museum, Doug said. We didnt know what to do with it. We had no place to store it. I called the Tennessee State Museum, and they didnt seem interested in it. We decided the Museum of Appalachia would be a good place to display it.

Thus, perhaps with striking irony, Asa Jacksons amazing, handmade perpetual motion machine rests silently, frozen in time and space, and remains a riddle for the ages.

Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at

Take a closer look

Asa Jacksons perpetual motion machine remains on view in the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, Tenn., about 16 miles north of Knoxville. The museum is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time in November and December. Hours vary with the seasons. For info about the museum, go online to For more details about Jacksons invention, go online to

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