Telescopes, Lenses, Airplanes, Automobiles, and Other Ancient Technology Described by Medieval Historian Roger Bacon
Telescopes, lenses, airplanes, automobiles, and other ancient technology were all described by the Medieval historian Roger Bacon. The “Admirable Doctor,” the greatest natural philosopher of the Middle Ages, was born in Somersetshire, England, about 1214, and he was educated at Oxford and Paris. By chance, he joined the Franciscan (mendicant) Order, for which he had no qualifications, and his ecclesiastical situation fiercely conflicted with his real scientific mindset. He was an avid proponent of observation and experiment as the basis of deduction, and never ceased urging the study of original sources and texts as the basis for gaining any sound natural knowledge.
However, his avant-garde beliefs and scientific practices, along with his condemnation of popular magical and religious machinations, eventually convinced his superiors that he was heretically minded, and that he threatened the status quo, so they imprisoned him in Paris in 1257 for ten years. Then Pope Clement IV, hearing of his scientific achievements, asked him to write out and send a summary of what he knew; in an incredibly short time.
Although he was penniless, denied pens and paper, except by special permission, and needed materials and skilled help, in 1268 he somehow managed to write an encyclopedic summary of all known science. It is filled with original experiments and acute deductions in mathematics, physics, and other disciplines. He addressed the following portion of his work to William of Paris, which eventually went to the Pope. Here are a few excerpts from some of the subtopics in this lengthy Latin treatise (rendered by an anonymous translator into English from a French work published in 1899) on "The Non-Existence of Magic":
"IV. On Wonderful Artificial Instruments"
"I will first tell of the wonderful works of art and nature, that I may afterwards assign the causes and manner of them, in which there is nothing magical, that it may be seen that all magic power is inferior to these works, and worthless. And first for the quality and reason of art alone. For instruments of navigation can be made without men as rowers, so that the largest ships, river and ocean, may be borne on, with the guidance of one man, with greater speed than if full of men. Also carriages can be made so that without an animal they may be moved with incalculable speed; as we may assume the scythed chariots to have been, with which battles were fought in ancient times. Also instruments for flying can be made so that a man may sit in the middle of the instrument, revolving some contrivance by which wings artificially constructed may beat the air, in the manner of a bird flying.
A miniature brass car or speedy "carriage"? of ancient Etruscan workmanship, found at Caere
"Instruments can also be made for walking in the sea or rivers, down to the bottom, without bodily peril. For Alexander the Great used these that he might view the secrets of the ocean, according to what Ethicus the astronomer narrates. These things were done in ancient times, and done in our own, as is certain, unless it may be the instrument for flying, which I have not seen, nor do I know any man who has seen; but I know that the wise man who planned this device completed it. And such things can be made almost infinitely, as bridges across rivers without pillars or any other support, and machines, and unheard of devices."
A 10th-century depiction of 2nd-century astronomer Ptolemy of Alexandria
observing the pole star (in a codex of St. Gall) and one of Galileo
"V. Of Experiments in Artificial Sight"
"Glasses can be so constructed that things placed very far off may appear very near, and vice versa; so that from an incredible distance we may read the minutest letters, and number things however little, and make the stars appear where we will. For this it is believed that Julius Caesar, on the shore of the sea in Gaul, discovered through huge glasses the disposition and sites of the castles and towns of Great Britain.
"But there is a sublimer power of construction, by which rays may be drawn and collected through various shapes and reflections to any distance we wish, so far that any object may be burned; for burning glasses acting forward and backward attest this, as certain authors teach in their books. And the greatest of all constructions and of things constructed is that the skies may be depicted according to their longitudes and latitudes, in corporal figures, as they are moved in their daily motion; and these things are worth a kingdom to the wise man. These then suffice for examples of constructions, however infinite a number of others may be put forward meantime."
An ancient Babylonian seal with an astronomer sitting
before a single lens telescope peering into the heavens
The famous English Egyptologist Sir Flinders Petrie
(1853-1942) and an ancient lens found at Tanis
The famous German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann
and one of several ancient lenses found at Troy
A comparison of a modern and ancient refracting telescope,
one displayed with a lens on a Ptolemaic jug
Roger even went on to explain more astonishing things, even in extreme detail, like how to make gunpowder; but, like his other scientific revelations, his religious superiors disregarded them and confined him again between 1278 and 1292. He passed on in 1294, and, sadly, his misplaced medieval repute as a magician was an ironic fate for one whose works had so firmly set out to combat such delusions.
If he knew about all of these ancient optical, chemical, and mechanical inventions over 700 years ago, what do you suppose he knew about the electric inventions the ancients produced—of which, perhaps, he could not explain? To find out, read The Electric Mirror on the Pharos Lighthouse and Other Ancient Lighting for a great discussion of old and ancient refractive and reflective telescopes.
This page was last modified on Tuesday, January 19, 2016