The Perpetual Motion Machine of Duncan

In 1934, Mr. Hector Tweed constructed a perpetual motion machine in an open, south-facing field at the far end of his property in the town of Duncan on Vancouver Island.

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The Perpetual Motion Machine of Duncan

In 1934, Mr. Hector Tweed constructed a perpetual motion machine in an open, south-facing field at the far end of his property in the town of Duncan on Vancouver Island.

The machine is a large, circular tube with a diameter eight times greater than a hula-hoop’s. The tube is made of the strongest, clearest glass. It is filled with salt water, a secret ingredient, and three small floating balls, red, green, and yellow. Its bottom half is buried in the ground. The upper half arches eleven feet into the air.

It is the colourful balls, always moving, that demonstrate the flow of the liquid, round and round, endlessly inside the tube.

When his work was finished, Mr. Tweed placed a small notice in the newspaper, the Cowichan Leader, stating that his perpetual motion machine could be viewed from 6 to 7 p.m. each evening. By Wednesday, five or six Duncan residents had seen the thing. They declared that Hector was sane, that the machine appeared to work, and that everyone should attend the picnic that Hector had announced for Saturday.

The day of the picnic was bright July blue. People brought food and babies, soccer balls, kites, skipping ropes, and gossip. The Mayor tried three times to think of a speech but found nothing to say. Susan Shearing and Donald Green won the egg toss. Hector led groups of picnickers to the machine, answered questions, and then returned to his backyard to pour lemonade. The newspaper quoted him as saying, “I built it and it worked.”

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Speak Your Best

The glass circle in the ground, nicknamed the Loop, was much talked about in Duncan. Some residents wondered if it were really a machine at all. It did nothing. No hay was hauled, no boards were sawn, no clothes cleaned. Mr. Tweed’s friends and supporters argued that the three balls were kept moving by the flow, that work was being done, which was as good a definition of a machine as anyone was likely to hear. Did the surrounding hills, Mount Tzouhalem and Mount Prevost, act as reflectors? It was considered a joke by some; by others, bad art. It became an accepted part of the town. Many citizens remembered the picnic fondly.

Through the years of war and the threat of nuclear war that followed, the machine was visited less frequently. Conversations about the perpetual motion machine were more of memory, less of debate. Few people could recall a time when the Loop (or the Dunked Doughnut, as it had come to be called) had not been sitting idling out there in Mr. Tweed’s field.

It was when stories of youthful pranks and indiscretions and first loves were recounted that the perpetual motion machine was most often mentioned. Some praised it for its beauty on a June day. A few met there in snowstorms. Its rumour came around every five or six years in the schoolyards.

The winter of ’73 was the coldest anyone could remember. City Hall thought snow removal, plumbers were kept busy with burst pipes, gardeners worried through February. Some recalled Mr. Tweed’s old machine. Did it still work?

One Duncan resident went out to check, then another. Two men badly frightened each other at 3 a.m. of the coldest day in January. “I’d come to see if it were still alive. I thought old Jeff was a cougar, for sure.”

More people trudged out to the field in the first two months of that year than in the ten years past. A neighbour, it turned out, had checked the machine at first light every day. She reported that the balls were always moving.

In the early Eighties, the Duncan Town Council decided that the half-forgotten PMM might attract some of the tourists travelling up and down the TransCanada highway. They suggested that full-sized replica arches be installed along the road, an entranceway and parking lot be built at the site, and an extra-large model of the attraction be stood up in some public place.

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Tasty Lunch

Mr. Tweed, then a spry eighty-two, declared that the machine was his and that he would smash the thing if such a scheme were adopted. Council sulked but backed down. The vote was against the plan, by a decent majority.

Hector Tweed died in 1987.

Only a few Duncan residents now seem to know the location of the perpetual motion machine. In a hundred years, will anyone care? Will trees still blossom in Duncan in the spring?