For: “Sympathetic Physics: The Keely Motor and The Laws of Thermodynamics in Nineteenth Century Culture,” Technology and Culture, vol. 60 no. 2, 2019, p. 438-466.
In “Sympathetic Physics: The Keely Motor and the Laws of Thermodynamics in Nineteenth-Century Culture,” Robert MacDougall deftly traces the long and winding career of a perpetual motion machine invented by John Worrell Keely in Philadelphia in 1873. Attracting widespread interest and investment for nearly three decades, The Keely Motor, it was said, could “drive locomotives without smoke, power factories without coal, and propel ships across the Atlantic using only a teacup of water for fuel.” “It is a shame,” MacDougall writes, “it never worked.”
MacDougall uses this previously little-remembered historical episode to paint a complex and vivid picture of late-nineteenth century America. He ingeniously probes the “work” the fraudulent motor performed for both its boosters and its critics, from investors captivated by dreams of profit without effort to the publishers of Scientific American, who saw the motor both as a useful foil and as a tool for selling magazines, unconcerned with the publicity they generated for Keely as a result. MacDougall further provides a subtle and captivating account of the author, art collector, and philanthropist Clara Jessup Bloomfield’s influential support for Keely. Recasting Bloomfield as neither a dupe nor a victim, the article reveals how she reconceptualized the technology as the embodiment of an alternative physics and metaphysics as well as a repudiation of anti-feminist psychology, a goal rooted in part in her personal grief at her daughter’s institutionalization.
The committee was impressed both by the article’s intellectual sophistication and its quiet stylistic elegance. MacDougall seamlessly weaves together the story’s multiple strands while simultaneously addressing larger thematic questions about innovation and failure, gender and power, and the relationships between technology, science, and society. The story MacDougall tells, moreover, continues to resonate today, helping us think more lucidly about the forces that sometimes allow even the most transparent technological puffery to capture social, political, and economic capital.