20th March 2023: 12.30pm

Free Energy in the City of Brotherly Love?
Malin Starrett asks: could you be trusted with unlimited amounts of free energy?

In the late 19th century, big business in Belfast got involved in promoting a radically new kind of power technology in the U.S., which promised free energy. This was the age of world-changing inventions and enthusiastic investors poured millions of dollars into developing the technology. However, these machines invented by John Keely did not become an everyday occurrence. This talk will outline the story surrounding Keely’s inventions, centred on Philadelphia, but also with commercial-idealistic support from Belfast.

Most people don’t realise how utterly bonkers the background to leading edge science and technology can actually be. This historical example raises many interesting questions regarding the role(s) of business in promoting new ideas and about what constitutes a genuinely useful technology.

Historians and philosophers of science and technology are well used to controversy – look deeply enough into any scientific discovery or invention and a tangle of ideas, claims, beliefs, and prejudices can often be found. This area of study promotes the ability to see multiple valid viewpoints. For instance, a seemingly ‘crazy’ ancient theory of astronomy might have worked well in its time in explaining the movements of the heavens. There is a childish arrogance in believing that today’s science and technology is the pinnacle of human achievement and, by implication, that all previous theories and developments were inferior and less true.

Unfortunately, not many people on the island of Ireland have a clue that the field of history and philosophy of science and technology even exists because it is not taught in any universities! Without people trained in this field and without students even getting a brief module of study in this area, society in general regresses to immature caricature conceptions of what science and technology is all about. When it does become necessary to publicly discuss and debate complex issues and controversies in science and technology – like in the recent pandemic – the public, politicians, civil servants, media figures and even scientists may slide into simplistic binary oppositional positions: ‘Following the Science’ versus ‘Conspiracy Theorists’?

One might think that even if the universities in Ireland are, for various reasons, unwilling to educate their students to apply critical thinking to the deeper issues and significances of science and technology then at least the book publishers would help fill the gap. Not so, if one checks the catalogues of the various book publishers in the Republic of Ireland and N. Ireland, the absence of serious books about the physical sciences and technology is almost complete. So complete, that hardly anyone notices the absence! Even the Royal Dublin Society, who used to produce books on the history of science and technology in Ireland have now pulled out of publishing. The vacuum of discourse in this area is indeed strange if one thinks of the tens of thousands of highly qualified (and highly paid) workers involved in the digital technology and pharmaceutical sectors in the Republic of Ireland. Employment levels, profits and tax revenues from ‘tech’ and ‘pharma’ are up but philosophical discussion, historical awareness and critical thinking are down. Could there be a link between these two opposite trends?

Attempting to research the Keely Motor affair is daunting to anyone who values complete truth. There are many specialized fields of study which need to be explored, such as: 19thc. media practices, history of 19thc. science, history of 19thc. technology, western esoteric streams, and the most specialized area in this whole group – western esotericism in relation to 19thc. industry. The present author recommends that anyone interested in Keely’s work should not seek out a neatly packaged potted history on the internet. A couple of relevant books would be: Clara Bloomfield Moore’s Keely and His Discoveries…(1893) and Theo Paijman’s Free Energy Pioneer: John Worrell Keely (1998) which doesn’t shy away from the controversies surrounding Keely and which is full of references to articles etc. Keely made worldwide news for over two decades, including coverage in various newspapers in the Ireland of the time, north and south. (1)

After Keely’s death (18.11.1898), his workshop was dismantled and alleged evidence of fraud was claimed in the newspapers as a sad public end to the Keely story. In Theo Paijman’s book, he lays out various possibilities regarding this alleged exposure of Keely as a fraud. What actually happened back then is important and the complete truth should be pursued. However, it is possible to find many themes worthy of discussion in the Keely story without definitely committing yourself on whether the technology really did work and did utilize a force previously unknown to physics. If it makes it less uncomfortable for you, treat the story as a science fiction tale which contains various general themes worthy of discussion.

Science fiction has had a curious relationship with the actual factual everyday world. In P.W. Singer’s book Wired for War…(2009), he describes the large influence of sci-fi literature and films on the U.S. military. For instance, he states that the idea for tanks and atom bombs appeared in sci-fi literature before they were ‘invented’. Some sci-fi authors act as consultants to the U.S. military, for example in imagining future threats. With a kind of reciprocal relationship, it also appears that the U.S. military has stimulated science fiction. Three of the leading 20thc. writers of science fiction – Robert Heinlein, Issac Asimov and L. Sprague de Camp all worked together during WWII at the Philadelphia Naval Yard. (2) Philadelphia has had quite a history in stimulating imagination and inventiveness.

With all due respect to the good work and diligent research of scientists in our universities, they do not necessarily represent the peak of knowledge in any subject area. Nor are they necessarily the best people to ask if something is possible or not. A good example of independent inventiveness concerns Edwin Land. Land’s first big discovery was solving what was called in optical physics ‘the classical problem’ – how to make an artificial transparent sheet which would polarize light. He broke off his Harvard studies after one year to live in a tiny room in N.Y. to work on ‘the classical problem’ independently. Success came around 1928 with considerable determination – he and co-worker Helen Maislen (later his wife) sneaking into the physics labs. of Columbia University at night to carry out experiments with a high power electromagnet. Land later came back to Harvard and was given a laboratory to continue his research. He left Harvard one semester before graduating to start his company.(3) The scientific experts in the universities had failed for decades to solve ‘the classical problem’, but the young Edwin Land found a solution. Another biography of Land is appropriately entitled Insisting on the Impossible…(4) This is all to say that John Keely’s work should not be dismissed by academic authorities as simply impossible. The world needs people of bold imagination to bring new discoveries. John Keely may well have been such a person.


  1. See, for instance, the article “The Keely Motor” in the Weekly Irish Times, 24th July 1875, p.3 and “To America in Four Days” The Belfast Newsletter, 1st September 1883, p.8
  2. Singer, P.W. Wired for War – The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century (2009), p. 154 – 165
  3. Wensberg, P. Land’s Polaroid – A company and the Man Who Invented It (1987), p. 28 -39
  4. McElheny, V.K. Insisting on the Imposssible – The Life of Edwin Land (1998)
date & time

date & time

Mon. 20th March
Duration: 1.5 hours



Boardroom, Crescent Arts Centre, University Road




book tickets

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