John Worrell Keely: Free Energy Pioneer

Theo Paijmans, (Lilburn, Georgia: IllumiNet Press, 1998), ISBN 1-88'53201501, 472 pp., $19.95, pb.

reviewed by Arthur Versluis, Michigan State University, Department of American Thought and Language

There has developed a small industry of books on the inventor Nikola Tesla, but relatively little has been published on John Worrell Keely (1827-1898), a now nearly forgotten American inventor in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who worked along lines not too far from those of Tesla. Even more than Tesla's, Keely's work remains enigmatic and shrouded in controversy, not least because almost all of Keely's strange machines, diagrams, and writings have vanished. In this book, Dutch author Theo Paijmans seeks to unravel the tangled skein of Keely's life and inventions, to consider how Keely's machines might have worked, and what esoteric sources might have influenced Keely's work, as well as how Keely himself in turn influenced others in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although Paijmans's book could have used a bit more judicious editing, it represents a considerable amount of research and does shed light on this quixotic and obscure American figure.

It is true that there are some minor problems with this book in its present form. While it is not an academic work, still a little more clarity is needed concerning as some definitions of Western esoteric traditions. For instance, the author implies that Agrippa and Paracelsus were connected to the Rosicrucian movement (p. 249), which is not strictly speaking accurate and while this may be a problem with syntax rather than definition, indicates one place among a number where further editing would have clarified what the author meant. There are a number of typographic errors in the book that could be corrected as well. But perhaps most useful would be editing that organized the book's topics and themes historically, and that encouraged a few less leaps of faith in terms of influences or implications.

This said, I must confess that Paijmans tells an interesting story, one worth reading. Keely represents a provocative conjunction in the history of Western esotericism, one that has not been adequately investigated: I refer here to the points of union between Western esoteric traditions and the development of technology and science.

All too often, historians have tended to polarize these two: on the one side is "objective scientific experimentation in the chemistry laboratory," and on the other are the "misguided alchemists in their laboratories." But in fact there have long been points of contact, overlap, and even union between esoteric and mainstream experimenters. In Keely's case, we have someone who purportedly invented motors that functioned without conventional kinds of fuel, and who was successful enough to convince investors to back his Keely Motor Company, based in Pennsylvania. Among those interested in his work were John Jacob Astor and other wealthy possible patrons, but also a wide range of nineteenth century figures including Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, who wrote about Keely in quite positive terms as having discovered hidden forces in the cosmos.

Perhaps most fascinating are the photographs in the book, which include numerous examples of Keely's strange machinery as well as scenes from his workshop. The more one inspects these peculiar mechanisms, with their metal spheres and silver-platinum wires, with their various gears and gizmos, the more difficult it is to dismiss Keely as entirely fraudulent, the conclusion of many of his contemporaries at the end of his life. If Keely had simply been a con man, it seems far more likely that he would have built a fake machine, bilked his investors, and fled town with the loot. Instead, it seems obvious that to the end of his days, he spent his time laboring over his quaint machines, tinkering, discarding, and inventing anew. Whether his machines actually worked, how they worked, and what happened to them remains a mystery, and the driving force behind this book's narrative.

While not all Paijmans's speculations and speculative jumps or suppositions are convincing, I don't have any doubt that this is a fascinating area for research, albeit of the kind that may never come to a satisfying conclusion. Apart from the enigmas wrapped in mysteries that this book presents, the character Keely himself represents a classic American figure, an inventor or would-be inventor whose influence on the esotericists of his day illustrates as well as anything how, in this field, the United States and Europe have remained indissolubly joined, each influencing the other in ways so complex as to be almost inextricable. A book in need of more editing, and that presents as many

questions as it does answers, John Worrell Keely: Free Energy Pioneer is a fascinating look at a remarkable man, his inventions, his precursors, and his influences.