Investing in Crypto-Engines

In Philadelphia in 1874, inventor John Worrell Keely demonstrated before a stunned audience his amazing new engine that promised to change the world’s approach to energy production forever. As the crowd watched, Keely blew into a nozzle for a full thirty seconds, poured five gallons of water from a tap into that same nozzle, and pointed to a pressure gauge reading 10,000 PSI to indicate that the water had been disintegrated and had released a newly discovered vapor with enough power to send a steam ship from New York to Liverpool and back five times over.

John Ernst Worrell Keely (ca. 1895), expert on sympathetic vibratory physics, posing with his impressively named motor that never worked. Not even a little. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

I imagine the audience may have had some questions, and Keely probably answered them. He certainly did so on a number of occasions. His invention, he said, was a “vibratory engine,” or if he were feeling particularly fancy, a “hydro-pneumatic pulsating vacuo-engine.”

Based on observations of a tuning fork in all its vibratory glory, Keely’s motor made use of etheric energy. And if you don’t know what that is, then I’m afraid I can’t help you. The best I can figure is that it’s kind of like an aura? Maybe? This is why I’m a writer and not an expert on sympathetic vibratory physics.

But Keely was an expert and he spent a lot of time explaining the alleged science behind his miraculous engine to potential investors, and some actual investors to the tune of $6 million of capital used for establishing his Keely Motor Company.

The biggest and most determined investor in Keely’s crypto-engine was a wealthy widow named Clara S. J. Bloomfield-Moore, who funded the company’s research for $100,000 plus a salary for Keely himself of $2,500 per month. I’m not a financial expert either, but I bet I don’t have to work hard to convince you that in the 1870s this was a whole lot of money.

Oh, ok. Forget the engineers and physicists. I see how it works now. Unknown author, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

And it probably would have been a worthwhile investment had there been anything to the hydro-pneumatic pulsating vacuo-engine. I certainly wish there had been. I keep reading reports of gas prices on the rise and the potential for shortages this summer as people begin to scratch the itch to get out of the house and into a post-pandemic world of summer fun. It would be nice to be able to travel the country fueled by nothing more than a bucket of water.

The anticipated shortages come primarily from a rise in demand that follows on the heels of a steep reduction in demand amid lockdowns and travel restrictions. During that same time period, training programs for new tanker truck drivers shut down or limited operations and many more experienced drivers, finding less work, decided to go ahead and retire. Apparently, tanker truck drivers are the new toilet paper.

So, when my 13-year-old son finishes this final week of what has been the “longest, most awful eighth grade year of [his] life” (his words, because he’s funny), and says he wants to “take all the vacations,” I find myself wishing Keely had been on the up-and-up.

He definitely wasn’t. For all the fancy explanations and big words Keely had to offer when asked, he was consistently reluctant to allow engineers and physicists to study his equipment. The opportunity for a thorough examination didn’t arrive until after his death in November of 1898. That’s when investigators uncovered a laboratory full of a great deal of piping, mechanical belts, pneumatic switches, and a large water-powered motor hidden in the basement.

He never did get his tuning fork engine to work. He did, however, manage to become a pretty successful humbug, skillfully attracting and putting off investors for more than twenty years with shady business practices akin to including the phrase “investing in crypto” in the title of a blog post about vibration and imaginary vapor. My hero.

He also coined the term “hydro-pneumatic pulsating vacuo-engine,” which has the potential to make you sound really smart at your next cocktail party, and maybe even raise some ill-gotten funds, as long as you are prepared to answer a few follow-up questions.

An Unexpected Need for Change

It was sometime in the early 1900s when an educated and highly intelligent young man from Austria-Hungary known by the name Victor Lustig embarked on a renowned life of crime. Aboard numerous transatlantic vessels this sophisticated gentleman successfully schmoozed would-be investors into supporting his non-existent Broadway Musical project. Then later he successfully sold a number of people his fantastic “Rumanian Box,” a small mahogany trunk containing two slots and some levers that worked to duplicate currency bills.

The con was pretty simple. Lustig, who tended to introduce himself as a count, happily demonstrated by asking his mark to provide a large denomination of bill, usually $100, and explained that it took six hours to make a perfect duplicate that would be accepted as legal tender by any bank. Then six hours later, Lustig’s miraculous contraption yielded two $100 bills, both of which would be determined to be genuine.

Lustig is the fella in the center with the trustworthy face. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Because they were. Of course Lustig planted the bill, and several more until the mark was thoroughly convinced and willing to cough up an awful lot of money to own the box. Lustig timed the con carefully so that he could be far away by the time the mark figured out he’d been had.

It is so simple, in fact, that one might wonder why any reasonably intelligent person might fall for it. Obviously, Victor Lustig was a pretty charming kind of guy, who gave off a trustworthy vibe. He allegedly put together a list of ten commandments for conmen that actually make me kind of like him, despite his questionable sense of morality. He’s also the same man who managed to sell the Eiffel Tower, which was neither on sale nor owned by him or anyone he ever represented, and who once conned Al Capone out of as much as $5,000. 

Lustig allegedly pulled off this creative scheme at least twice.

But I think the Rumanian Box scheme had something else going for it. On the dresser in my bedroom I have a basket where I sometimes throw the coins from the bottom of my purse, and where my husband might drop the loose change from his pants pockets before sending them through the ever-revolving laundering process.

If you have a similar spot on your dresser or nightstand or kitchen counter, you will probably not be surprised to read that this little collection of coins seems to multiply. Logically, I know this is because we add to it every time we find a few pennies in the couch cushions or clean dimes out the cup holders in the car or remove clattering nickels from the washing machine that slipped through the initial pocket-emptying process.

I could swear it multiplies.

When I occasionally think about it, I might grab a few coins from this basket and make an effort to spend them at the store, but I rarely do think about it. I’m often not using cash at the store these days anyway so I don’t really worry much about exact change.

And it turns out that’s true of a lot of Americans, particularly right now in this strange era of Covid-19. We don’t go to as many physical stores or use as many vending machines or stuff as many parking meters or travel as many toll roads or walk into as many bank lobbies as we used to.

Our tossed aside pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters are sitting, multiplying, in the baskets on our dressers. The businesses that are usually part of the chain that reintroduces those coins into circulation, aren’t handling as many. In fact, there’s a shortage.

First toilet paper. Now this.

As a result, the Federal Reserve has been rationing coins, and signs are starting to pop up in retail spaces asking people to use either exact change if possible, or an alternate form of payment. It’s almost as weird as not being able to find toilet paper and canned soup.

It sounds like the problem just kind of snuck up on us. I suppose it is difficult to anticipate all of the ramifications of shutting down an economy on a scale we’ve never attempted before. Fortunately, according to Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell, the shortage is most likely pretty temporary and should sort itself out as more parts of the economy open up.

But if it doesn’t, I have a solution. I think the US should consider investing in some of these fancy dresser-top baskets so many of us have sitting around. I’d part with mine for the right price. Oh, I’m also working on a Broadway musical in need of investors. And I happen to have a tower for sale.