Los Angeles Oil Pumps as The Perpetual Motion Machine

Perpetual motion would occur in a device or system if a motion, once started, were to continue indefinitely. Oil pumps in Los Angeles started drilling for oil in 1892, when a miner named Edward Doheny began drilling for oil on a residential lot to the northeast of the then-small town of Los Angeles; and oil pumps in L. A. had never stop moving since that moment. Can we refer to perpetual motion when talking about oil pumps?

While travelling across Los Angeles, driving through its freeways and looking to the new landscapes from a second nature created by oil pumps, you can only think in two things: the old cliche to reference dinosaurs that mammoth mentions at their post or the sense of perpetual motion.

Kevin T. Kilty says at his research Pepetual Motion:

The documented search for perpetual motion begins in the 13th century. Villard de Honnescourt drew designs for such machines at that time. There may be earlier designs, but perpetual motion is closely linked to machines, especially rotating machines, and machines are neither widespread nor very sophisticated before this time. The search continues to the present day. More recent designs for perpetual motion appear in response to crises, like the energy crisis, or high costs of fuels, or some poorly understood technological need.

As Ruchala suggest, without oil, the region would have turned out to be a far different place, and this second nature that now is part of the urban landscape, may have not been there in its perpetual pumping activity. For millennia, it was not clear whether perpetual motion devices were possible or not, but the development of modern thermodynamics has indicated that they are impossible. Despite this, many attempts have been made to construct a perpetual motion machine and that’s why we think it’s interesting to make this speculative similarity between perpetual motion machines and oil pumps in Los Angeles.


Oil pumps in Central California. Source: Richard Masoner at flickr.


Oil Fields in California, by Edward Burtynsky.

Although considered impossible by scientists, perpetual motion continues to capture the imagination of inventors. In 1900, Nikola Tesla claimed to have discovered an abstract method on which to base a perpetual motion machine, he wrote:

A departure from known methods – possibility of a “self-acting” engine or machine, inanimate, yet capable, like a living being, of deriving energy from the medium – the ideal way of obtaining motive power.

In The Order of Time, Reidar Finsrud proposes what he called the first working perpetuum mobile in human history. Finsrud was trying to do with his machine what Tesla described once, when he said: “One day man will connect his apparatus to the very wheelwork of the universe [...] and the very forces that motivate the planets in their orbits and cause them to rotate will rotate his own machinery.”


Perpetual Mobile, Reidar Finsrud


Perpetual Mobile, Reidar Finsrud

Most of oil infrastructures in Los Angeles are part of the “hidden city” that Ruchala describes in his article, and these oil pumps are maybe the only part of the whole infrastructure that hasn’t been camouflaged neither balkanized by private companies that have always controlled this industry. These oil fields are part of the most unique and some times dystopic landscapes in California and especially in Los Angeles. They are, in Ruchala’s words, between infrastructure and landscape and somehow, it’s perpetual motion is the last sign of the industrial face of the city, before it reshapes its image and become a totally new L. A., a post-industrial city.

The legacy of Oil fields remains. We can quote Ruchala when he wrote:

Even as the oil industry disappears from view in Los Angeles, it will never truly vanish, but will always remain just under the surface, a toxic pillow of liquid unsettling the city. In its refusal to obey our wishes, oil reminds us that our actions on the land have created a second nature.


Los Angeles Oil. Source Brendan Biele

With a sort of blind faith in technique, it seems that we are still on in the search of the perpetual motion, while Los Angeles oil pumps that still remains in the field, remind us a time where all of us were confident on perpetual oil search.

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This post is part of The Infrastructural City blogiscussion, now reading Crude City by Frank Ruchala.

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