Readers of a certain vintage may recall a well-known resident of the village of Turlough. Edward May was a dentist by profession, but his real passion in life was as an inventor, a pursuit that won him considerable national publicity but little, alas, by way of memorable discoveries.
After a few initial forays, it was his claimed invention of the ‘Perpetual Light’ that brought Mr May to serious prominence. The Turlough dentist had found a method to provide electrical energy at no cost; the Perpetual Light appliance would last forever and, apart from its initial cost, would keep home and factory, school and hospital provided with free lighting for ever and ever. The invention would do away completely with electricity, and would make Castlebar the global production hub of this Aladdin Lamp, employing thousands, and creating untold local wealth.
If there was a drawback to this good news announcement it was that nobody had actually seen the Perpetual Light in operation. Somewhat mysteriously, Mr May had announced that he required the imprimatur of both the Catholic and Protestant Primates of all Ireland, and their spiritual advice, before he would go any further. But, in the meantime, he would unveil the wonder invention at a public meeting in Castlebar.
And so up to 500 people crowded into the then Erris Hotel to witness the great event. However, to the disappointment of many, it transpired that Mr May’s intention was to deliver a talk on the discovery and how it operated, rather than a practical demonstration of the invention itself.
The mood was somewhat fraught, and when Mr May finally invited questions from the audience, a large section lined up with some robust challenges to the science behind the invention. On the other hand, a raucous detachment of Mr May’s admirers set up a counter demonstration, necessitating the arrival of the Gardaí as the meeting descended into disorder, the pro-inventor faction carrying their man shoulder high out on to the street to a rousing rendition of ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’.
Little more was heard of Mr May’s Perpetual Light after that, but you cannot keep a good idea down. Fast forward another 50 years, and lo and behold, a new start-up Irish company bursts out of nowhere, claiming it has developed a technology that could produce infinite amounts of clean, free and constant energy, thanks to a discovery which defied the laws of physics.
Steorn, a tech-development company, announced that it had stumbled on a process, which it called Orbo, to create enough free energy for everything from charging mobile phones to running fuel-free cars. That was in 2006, and over the following ten years, 400 Irish investors pumped €23 million into Steorn. All walked away without getting a cent back.
Like Mr May half a century earlier, the ‘discovery’ by Steorn was met with derision. So, irked by the scientific community’s cynicism, Steorn played an audacious card. A full-page advert in The Economist magazine challenged a jury of 22 of the world’s top scientists to come to Dublin and test for themselves the genuineness of the Orbo.
Forbes magazine had rubbished the Orbo as ‘powered by blarney’; the Economist called it ‘perpetual nonsense’. Worse still, the all-expense assembled jury of 22 gave the Orbo the thumbs down – it was a fake.
Like Mr May’s Perpetual Light, so ended the Orbo, except for a new book by journalist Barry Whyte called ‘The Impossible Dream’, which charts how so many hard-headed farmers and doctors and solicitors fell over each other to throw money away on a pipedream.