Even though it is motionless, Wilson County inventor Asa Jackson’s perpetual motion machine continues to keep heads turning and minds spinning 150 years after its creation.
Lebanon resident Doug Jackson and his wife, Leta, stand in front of the perpetual motion machine, located at the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, Tenn., his great-great-grandfather Asa Jackson invented. (Photo courtesy of Appalachia Museum)
Nobody seems to know exactly how it operated and plenty of pieces are missing, but the Leeville farmer’s perpetual motion wheel, 6 feet in diameter and made of wood, commands a prominent place in the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, Tenn.
The sign beside the wheel, protected behind Plexiglass, proclaims: Asa Jackson’s Fabulous Perpetual Motion Machine, which he designed and built in the mid-1800s to produce its own power — and run forever.
“The two wheels were hanging in my daddy’s shop all my life,” saids Lebanon resident 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 Jackson said.
Local legend suggests that Asa Jackson kept his machine in Black Cat Cave near Murfreesboro, across the road from the military 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 family’s threshing factory burned, thus the machine was obsolete. Asa Jackson died in 1870, so his invention was stored in a shed on the family farm where hungry rats and time took their toil 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 wouldn’t pull anything,” Doug Jackson 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 who possessed a keen mind like Asa Jackson, went on to bigger and better projects. In 1949, he invented a tobacco setter that 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 didn’t have room to store it,” Doug Jackson recalled.
Welder-inventor Jack Jackson died in August 1994 at 85. Two months later, the Museum of Appalachia’s John Rice Irwin came calling. He studied it hanging in his 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 couldn’t because they didn’t have it all,” said Doug Jackson, who worked in his father’s shop from the age of 8 to 28 before going to work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for 28 years.
Asa’s 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,” explained Elaine Meyer, president of the museum, who is 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,” she said. “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.”
Irwin was not alone in his astonishment for the intricacies of Asa Jackson’s 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,” Brown said. “I was awestruck by how beautiful the wheel was, how complicated. I said to the director, ‘That is an amazing piece or machinery, fine work for the 1860s.’”
Brown, who was thunderstruck by the delicacy of the machine, spent hundreds of hours studying Asa Jackson’s 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.
“I’ve 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 Jackson’s machine had almost no correction to it, which leads me to believe it was version 3.0,” said Brown. “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 I’m sure he was in it for the money, not for a Nobel Prize. He saw a need for it.”
Likewise, Irwin saw a need to place it in his museum.
“I’ve heard John Rice [Irwin] say that it was the most prized possession in his museum,” says Asa’s great-great-grandson Doug Jackson. “We didn’t know what to do with it. We had no place to store it. I called the Tennessee State Museum, and they didn’t seem interested in it. We decided the Museum of Appalachia would be a good place to display it.”
Thus, perhaps with striking irony, Asa Jackson’s amazing, handmade perpetual motion machine rests silently, frozen in time and space, and remains a riddle for the ages.