Pioneer or huckster?

Theo Paijmans. Free Energy Pioneer: John Worrell Keely. Illuminet Press, 1998.
The story of John Keely and his mysterious free energy devices has now hovered at the fringes of science for a century, with little in the way of consensus as to who he was, and what (if anything) he contributed to the theory or technology of physics. This persistent liminal status is the result of the two entirely opposed versions of his life and work, which have, if anything, diverged even further in the intervening years since his death. In one version he was a huckster who raised millions of dollars from Wall Street investors with ever taller tales of the alternative energy devices which he was constantly in the final stages of perfecting; in the other version, he was a misunderstood genius who discovered a previously hidden force in nature and offered it to the world through a series of radical technologies which were repeatedly suppressed by obscure and sinister forces.

Although both these versions of the Keely story probably have their kernels of truth, both are also glaringly implausible. The huckster version asks us to ignore the fact that Wall Street was fooled, not once, but over a period of twenty years; that many of the Wisest and wealthiest industrialists of the day, such as Lord Astor, continued to invest in Keely after thorough demonstrations of his prototype devices; and that the Keely Engine remained a consistently plausible investment for hundreds of industrialists, bankers and scientists. The genius version, by contrast, asks us to believe that Keely's endless stream of arcane prototypes - Compound Disintegrators, Hydro-Pneumatic-Pulsating-Vacuo Engines and Vibratory Planetary Globes - represent not the sci-fi movie props they most closely resemble but a unique success in harnessing a form of power which no-one else has yet measured, let alone produced or controlled.

The other awkward fact for the proponents of the genius hypothesis is that, when the basement which Keely used for his demonstrations was demolished after his death, it was was found to contain all manner of hidden pipes and passages which, it was assumed, were engineered to allow the introduction of compressed air and other forms of less-than-mysterious mechanical assistance into his experiments. It is this postmortem exposure which, more than anything else, has tipped history's judgement on Keely towards the huckster version - although, as Theo Paijmans points out in this new biography, the compressed-air-hoax-theory has more than its share of problems too.

It would be almost impossible to write a book on Keely to this exhaustive level of detail without clearly favouring one version over the other, and Paijmans, while maintaining objectivity wherever possible, is clearly a believer in the misunderstood genius version. To his credit, however, he walks the razor edge of impartiality for the greater part of the book, dissecting Keelys life, work and increasingly esoteric milieux with impeccable detail, before giving in to some speculation (clearly labelled as such) in the final chapter - speculation which may make the reader grateful beyond measure that his personal views are absent from the rest of the book.

In fact, though, Paijmans dissection of Keely and his world is so conscientious and thorough that he ends up building a far more credible case for the prosecution than he does for his own view. The science of Keely's work - harmonics, aetheric vibration, antigravity and the rest - seems on closer examination to have the shifting, protean quality of pseudoscientific band-aids attempting to hold together ever-vaguer ideas; far more convincing is Paijmans exposition of how these ideas, increasingly marginalised and ignored by the scientific mainstream, came to find a natural home in the burgeoning occult traditions of Theosophy and its New Age spawn.

Occultism and electrical physics seem such odd bedfellows today that its fascinating to discover how close they must have seemed to each other a century ago, when new forms of energy - Rontgen, gamma and X-rays - or the technologies of robotics and teleautomation being pioneered by Nikola Tesla, were discussed in tones almost indistinguishable from Reichenbachs odic force, or the variants of Mesmers animal magnetism which were commonly proposed as explanations for spiritualist phenomena. One of Paijmans most impressive achievements in this book is to construct a history of occult technology - from classical precedents such as Apollonius of Tyana to the clockwork automata of the Renaissance and the spirit gadgets of John Dee and Athanasius Kircher - a tradition into which Keelys extraordinary devices fit far more neatly than the traditional history of electro-magnetic turbines, dynamos and engines within which his apologists attempt to shoehorn them.

It is this occult context, on which Paijmans spends the greater part of the book, which offers such ironically convincing evidence for the version of the Keely story where he was, perhaps not a huckster, but a monomanic inventor who spent his life attempting without success to harness forces of which his own understanding seems to have become ever vaguer as he progressed. In the context of the new forces which were being developed around him - alternating current, hydro-electric power, not to mention the secrets of the atom which were simultaneously being unveiled - it would have been a hard-headed industrialist indeed who, in the 1880s, would have rejected Keely's bizarre and spectacular designs outright. More likely - as indeed was the case - many leading investors would have hedged or side-bet with low levels of finance, on the back of which the energetic entrepreneurs of the Keely Motor Company managed to inflate a series of investment bubbles among an excitable public.

But Paijmans book, even if it fails to make the case for Keely as the free energy pioneer of the title, certainly defends him against the worst accusations of fraud and hucksterism. These have, in truth, always been implausible: if Keely was only in it for the money, its hard to see why he would have continued to spend eighteen hours a day in a dank basement for over twenty years, living frugally and spending exorbitantly on ever more arcanely-tooled machine parts. Perhaps, thanks to the context which this book has assembled around Keely for the first time, we can find a Third Way between huckster and genius: perhaps Keely is best understood as neither scientist nor fraud but a tortured and misunderstood artist, and his true legacy to the world is his eloquent, if useless, sculptures of brass, pig-iron, mirror and filament which are so tantalisingly reproduced throughout this volume. -- Reviewed by Mike Jay, first published in Magonia 67, June 1999.

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