“Compressed Air Reservoirs, Tubing, Hollow Wires, Batteries, and Other Secret Mechanical Contrivances Found in His Laboratory That Go to Prove He Juggled With the Wealthy People Who Bought Stock in His Motor” – The San Francisco Call (1899)
In 1872, John W. Keely, founder of the Keely Motor Company (KMC), announced his newly invented ‘Perpetual Motion’ machine. According to Keely, the machine was capable of providing a new form of energy at an astonishingly low cost.
Not lacking bravado, the charismatic founder boldly claimed that his invention could fuel a round trip train journey from New York to San Francisco using just one quart of water. Furthermore, a single gallon of water could allegedly power a steamship’s voyage from New York to Liverpool, and back.
Unsurprisingly, Keely’s grandiose ambitions attracted investments from around the country. Within a year, Keely had garnered a substantial war chest from investors that were swept up by the inventor’s outlandish promises.
The only problem, however, was that the Keely Motor Company proved to be an elaborate fraud.
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Far from successfully inventing a revolutionary machine that would disrupt industries far and wide, Keely had in fact devised a contraption just sophisticated enough to fool those who witnessed his presentations.
Although many scientists at the time publicly questioned his inventions, Keely successfully evaded being exposed during his lifetime. Upon his death, investigators finally learned of his nefarious trickery as they scoured his laboratory.
According to the Philadelphia Press investigation in 1899, the Keely Motor Company:
“Was composed of nearly all the fundamental tones of delusion that vibrate in ill-balanced mental systems: a revelation of nature’s mysteries, the stultifying of current science, a new mechanical contrivance to develop untold power…little more is needed to give Keelyism its proper place in a museum of pathological mental products.”
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Most remarkably, over the 26-year period beginning with the founding of Keely’s company, until his death, John Keely never brought his product to market.
Despite the fact that he had first announced his invention in 1872, received investments from numerous wealthy individuals, and even publicly listed the company’s shares, the ‘Perpetual Motion’ machine never came to fruition.
Similar claims could be levied against Elon Musk. Although, the CEO has successfully brought numerous Tesla products to market, Musk has struggled to do so in the manner that he often promises.
For instance, Tesla has repeatedly failed to reach the production targets that Musk himself has set. In one particular example, Tesla announced its intention of producing 1,500 Model 3s in Q3 2017. During the quarter, however, the company only managed to produce 17% of that target, as it successfully rolled 260 Model 3s off the assembly line.
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“Managers are again applying the thumb-screw…threatening a suit for obtaining money under false pretenses, unless Mr. Keely renounces his plan of progressive research, and gives his time to the construction of engines for the Keely Motor Company” — Bloomfield Moore (1893)
One of Keely’s many tactics for diverting scrutiny from his ‘Perpetual Motion’ machine was to ‘wow’ investors with new inventions, and even more ambitious goals.
However, shareholders of the Keely Motor Company eventually grew weary of the inventor constantly announcing new inventions, since he had not yet completed the ‘Perpetual Motion’ machine that had originally prompted their investments.
Understandably, investors were frustrated that Keely repeatedly turned his attention to new projects, or further research instead of focusing on bringing his original machine to market. Eventually, this discontent resulted in a lawsuit against the evasive founder.
Today, Tesla shareholders face a similar situation. Although Elon Musk has certainly had successes at the helm of Tesla, the company’s operations have been far from smooth. Instead of focusing on improving Tesla’s weaknesses, however, Musk has exacerbated the situation by adopting tactics similar to John Keely’s.
In recent years, Musk has become notorious for continually announcing new projects or companies. These announcements have distracted pundits and critics from Tesla’s shortcomings, but also consumed time that Musk could spend focusing on Tesla’s issues.
These projects include The Boring Company, NeuraLink, and a HyperLoop along the east coast. All this, of course, is in addition to Musk already being the CEO of SpaceX, and SolarCity, a subsidiary of Tesla.
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Despite what recent headlines would suggest, the story of Elon Musk has not been finished. Despite recently reaching a settlement with the SEC, Musk remains CEO of Tesla. However, the comparisons with John Keely and the fraudulent Keely Motor Company are clear.
Both men operated motor companies that promised to deliver a more efficient, sustainable source of energy, and attracted countless investors due to their bravado, and ambitious goals.
Like Keely, Musk frequently distracts shareholders from his inability to establish a smoothly functioning company by constantly announcing newer, grander aspirations that excite investors.
There is little doubting that Tesla’s cars are fine pieces of machinery, and the company’s products are certainly not fraudulent like Keely’s.
Regardless, it remains to be seen whether or not Tesla shareholders will suffer through a ‘perpetual motion’ of waiting for Elon Musk to finally hit his production targets, avoid controversy, and remain committed to the task at hand.
Unlike Keely, however, Musk will not be given 26 years to prove himself.