Spring 2006

Something for Nothing

Searching for free energy in the Swiss Alps

Nick Laessing

Still, with handwriting, from an 8mm film of the Testatika, which is shown powering a 1000-watt bulb. The hands of the free-energy machine’s inventor, Paul Baumann, are visible on the left. Courtesy Stefan Hartmann.

I first came across a reference to Methernitha, a secretive religious group in Switzerland that claims to have invented a “free energy” machine, while browsing in a second-hand bookshop. I had been researching the long history of the quest for free energy and had even built my own device, modeled on a patent filed by John Bedini in 2003 for a motor that is supposed to be able to recharge its own batteries and thereby run continuously. But Methernitha claims that the Testatika, as its adherents call their invention, provides a perfect source of environmentally clean electricity magically accumulated out of thin air. Why then would they not share this amazing secret of perpetual motion with the world?

One of their 140 members, Victor Bosshardt, eventually replied to my many faxes and emails and extended a rare invitation to visit the community. Methernitha consists of a few tidy, innocuous, timber-clad chalets on the outskirts of Linden, a remote alpine village in Emmental, a part of Switzerland famous for its cheese. Victor, who is in his sixties, was waiting for me on Methernitha’s gravel driveway wearing loose brown trousers and a shirt with rolled-up sleeves; I noticed he was limping. He gave me a guided tour around the communal eating hall, well-stocked library, and carpentry factory where the group manufactures the office furniture it sells. When I asked Victor about a fenced-off area that caught my attention, but which I had pointedly not been shown, he confirmed that that was where the Testatika was kept.

Thickly planted firs surrounded by a high wire fence obscured Methernitha’s research laboratory. I struggled to see something through the foliage. The only clues as to its use were the several steel wind turbine masts that rose above the treetops. The turbine blades were branded with the Methernitha space-age-style logo and appeared strangely out of place in such a setting. I had read that alongside the free energy provided by the Testatika, the community also uses other more conventional forms of alternative energy to generate electricity—but if they had really discovered the long-sought secret of perpetual motion, why would these supplementary power sources be necessary?

No one has been allowed to see the Testatika and its sister machines for several years. The only existing pictures of the Testatika come from an 8mm film shot by a team of thirty technicians and engineers who were given a ninety-minute-long demonstration in 1999. It is shown powering a 1000-watt bulb and heating an element to incandescence. One of these observers, who was particularly impressed by the machine’s beauty, was asked if he thought flat batteries might be concealed in the device: “Unfortunately, I cannot judge that,” he answered (the scientists weren’t allowed to investigate the machine closely enough to be able to discover its mysterious workings). “If one considers that the Methernitha community gains neither money nor fame from the machine, and that they are so media-shy and otherwise restrictive, I find the thought of a simple battery trick pretty absurd. … Of course, a skeptic might argue that they are media-shy because it’s a battery trick!”

I optimistically asked Victor if he would show me the machine—as an artist, what possible threat could I present?—but he shook his head. He led me to a small garden shaded by a willow tree where there was a table with a faded plastic cloth on it and a wooden bench. Things were tired-looking—not quite shabby; well-used but cared for. He reappeared with a jug of homemade lemonade and two glasses, and started to explain the history of Methernitha. He told me about the philosophy behind the machine, about the group’s spiritual, environmentally conscious, self-sufficient way of life. (They live according to Christian principles, follow the simple maxim “all for one and one for all,” and abstain from alcohol, tobacco, and drugs.) After a little cajoling, he began to tell the story of his close friend Paul Baumann, who is credited with the invention of the Testatika.

Baumann, who was raised a strict Lutheran and who originally worked as a watchmaker, was a founding member of the community in the 1950s. He was once accused of sexually abusing a young girl in the village and served a short prison sentence. In his jail cell, he grew frustrated at not having enough light to read by and one night he had a vision in which he saw a miraculous machine that would solve this problem. On his release, Baumann rejoined the community and began work on the Testatika. Victor drew sketches in my notebook as he explained how the machine harnessed latent electrical energy generated by the interaction between the earth and atmosphere. His sketches were quite abstract and he spoke about the Testatika in metaphysical terms. Such a machine, he said, could never have been invented by Baumann were it not for the community’s deep understanding of the spiritual forces of the world. The Methernitha group almost deify the Testatika—Victor tells me that Baumann once filmed the machine with his video camera in the dark and the camera picked up a halo of multicolored light rays emanating from it. I enquired about these tapes but was told that viewing them wouldn’t be possible.

I’d read that Baumann had in fact died in the winter of 2001, taking his secret of free energy with him to the grave, but Victor denied this and assured me that Baumann was very much alive. Could I meet him? Apparently he was a very private man and never gave interviews. I thought I might recognize Baumann from the photos I‘d seen of him with his arm around one of his designs. One or two members of Methernitha would occasionally pass by, though Baumann was nowhere to be seen.

I left Methernitha that day with many questions buzzing through my mind. What if I asked to become a member? Would I be accepted? Would they let me see it then? Would I find out how the machine functioned, and whether trickery was involved? How long would it take to gain their trust? Stefan Marinov, a Bulgarian physicist and free-energy inventor, joined Methernitha and for many years attempted to understand how the machine worked. He claimed to be privy to the secret of the device, but he could not convince the group to share their knowledge with outsiders. In the summer of 1997, he leapt to his death from a library window at Graz University; his suicide note ended with: “feci quod potui, faciant meliora potentes” (“I did what I could, let those who can do better”).

Soon after making my pilgrimage to Methernitha, I heard about a conference devoted to free energy to be held in Berlin. Looking down the schedule, I was excited to see that there would be a presentation of a Testatika. I immediately booked a place and bought a plane ticket. When the time came, a somewhat half-heartedly constructed machine built by a physics Ph.D. student was lifted out of a box in the lecture theatre. The disappointing machine was described as a demonstration device, created to rule out certain hypotheses of the Testatika’s design—to show how it didn‘t work. When I spoke to him after his talk and explained my ambitious quest to build my own working version of the Testatika, he earnestly recommended that a thorough reading of Goethe’s Faust might be the best way forward. I was gripped by the secret of magical power, but I wasn’t prepared to sell my soul to the devil quite yet.

Nick Laessing is an artist working in London and Berlin. Recent projects include the publication What Is Energy? (40 Questions) with curator Gavin Wade, and shows at Castlefield Gallery in Manchester and Mary Mary in Glasgow.

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