Wonderful energy patents that didn’t quite work

  • British Rail’s flying saucer
  • The perpetual motion machine
  • A true light bulb moment

Everyone has a great idea in the works but fewer have a successful patent to show for it. Energy patents have had their fair share of success and failure.

Here’s our top list of energy ideas that seemed great at the time but didn’t quite make the grade. 


The Windmill Boat (1981)

Life on the ocean wave can be idyllic, but if only the wind wasn’t so unpredictable. Enter the Windmill Boat. With an umbrella shaped sail that rotates in the wind, propelling the boat and generating/storing electricity, the Windmill Boat makes sailing, plain sailing. What’s more, if you put the sail straight up it also acts as a giant parasol. It’s like having your own Transformer. 


Windy Wheels (1988)

Love cycling but hate having to pedal? You need Windy Wheels. This invention harnesses the power of wind in its sails to send you powering down the pavement like Ben Ainslie. “But what if there’s no wind?” I hear you ask – excellent point. 


British Rail’s flying saucer (1970)

Although the nation’s rail company had its hands full running a complex network, someone at British Rail still found the time to try and master space travel. Granted, the physics were a little sketchy, but you can’t fault the aspiration and optimism. 


Light Bulb Changer (2004)

How many people does it take to change a lightbulb? None, thanks to the Light Bulb Changer. A dizzying combination of springs, motors and wires detects a burnt out bulb and changes it, removing that tricky task from your chore list forever. 


Perpetual motion machine (1973)

Defined as a motion that continues indefinitely without any external source of energy, perpetual motion is considered impossible because of friction and other sources of energy loss. But that hasn’t stopped plenty of inventors filing patents that claim to have cracked this ‘holy grail’ of energy, such as this magnet-based brainwave from Howard Johnson. Don’t break out the toolkit just yet though, because it doesn’t work, although there are plenty of fascinating variations worth checking out. 


Google’s water-based data centre (2008)

The energy required for Google’s servers is enough to power a small city so it’s unsurprising the digital behemoth is looking for ways to offset that consumption. The company already has a water-cooled data centre in Finland and there is also a patent filed which details plans for a barge or cargo ship equipped to capture energy from tides and convert it to electricity. In fairness, this is one entry on our list that could conceivably happen, and it’s good to know that the ability to search the internet for lolcats is being secured for our future.


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