I have two topics to discuss today. The first concerns American Cosmic author Diana Pasulka, whose Twitter account created controversy over the weekend. In a series of tweets, Pasulka’s Twitter account alleged that Tom DeLonge is a Freemason, that his To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science is a U.S. government “psyop,” that TTSA “scientists” were defecting from the organization or want to, that U.S. presidents engage in pagan lunar worship rituals, and that she would henceforth associate only with members of Jacques Vallée’s supposed “Invisible College” of UFO researchers. Late on Saturday, she put out a statement saying that she had been hacked and was “mortified” by what the hacker said while posing as her on Twitter and in email. She conceded, however, that “Some things were actually things in my email, but nothing I would say publicly.” She did not specify which of the inflammatory claims were her own. It’s probably enough to know that at least some are.
Well, enough of that.
In a recent article at Mysterious Universe, Micah Hanks tries and fails to think critically about a passage in the works of Roger Bacon describing what sounds like a Wile E. Coyote-style flying contraption intended to carry a man aloft on mechanical bird wings. You know things are off to a bad start when Hanks opens with Leonardo da Vinci and refers to him as “da Vinci” as though that were Leonardo’s surname. Dan Brown’s novel notwithstanding, it was not his name but a descriptor.
OK, so Hanks presents a deceptively truncated passage from the 1597 English translation of Bacon’s Mirror of Alchimy (as it was then titled), which he has clearly never read in full. Here is how he misstates it:
“There may bee made instruments of Nauigation without men to rowe in them … yea instruments to flie withall, so that one sitting in the middle of the Instrument, and turning about an Engine, by which the winges being artificially composed may beate the ayre after the maner of a flying bird … And it is certaine that there is an instrument to flie with, which I neuer sawe, nor any man that hath seene it, but I full wel know by name the learned man that inuented the same.”
This is deceptively edited to make it look like we are talking about a flying ship with wings. But the full passage shows that the ship and the flying contraption are two different things. The part about the flying machine is in boldface:
Now will I begin to recount vnto you strange things, performed by Arte and Nature, and afterwards I will shew you the causes and manners of things, wherein shall bee nothing Magicall, so that you shall confesse all Magicke power to be inferior to these, and vnworthie to be compared with them. And first of all by the figuration of Art it selfe: There may bee made instruments of Nauigation without men to rowe in them: as huge Shippes to brooke the Sea, onely with one man to steere them, which shal saile farre more swiftly then if they were full of men. And Chariots that shall mooue with an vnspeakeable force, without any liuing creature to stirre them: such as the crooked Chariots are supposed to haue beene, wherein in olde time they vsed to fight, yea instruments to flie withall, so that one sitting in the middle of the Instrument, and turning about an Engine, by which the winges being artificially composed may beate the ayre after the maner of a flying bird. Besides, there may bee made a small Instrument in quantitie, to lift vppe, and let downe things of great waight, then which there is nothing more commodious to weigh with. For by an Instrument of three fingers high, and three fingers broad and lesse quantitie, may a man ridde himselfe, and his companions from all daunger of imprisonment, and lift them vp, and let them downe. Yea such an Instrument may easily be made, whereby a man may violently draw vnto him a thousand men, will they, nill they, and any other thing.
As you can see, the part about knowing the inventor’s name doesn’t apply to the flying machine of the earlier paragraph but to a second and separate one. The text was translated again in 1695, from a copy said to be owned by John Dee. I won’t repeat the whole thing, but the most relevant lines are given this way: “These all of them (excepting only that instrument of flying, which I never saw or know any, who hath seen it, though I am exceedingly acquainted with a very prudent man, who hath invented the whole Artifice) with infinite such like inventions, Engines and devices are feasible….”
Now, why anyone would use this translation when a more modern and readable one, from 1923, is available, I can’t imagine. In clearer language it reads:
Mechanical Devices.—It is possible that great ships and sea-going vessels shall be made which can be guided by one man and will move with greater swiftness than if they were full of oarsmen. It is possible that a car shall be made which will move with inestimable speed, and the motion will be without the help of any living creature. Such, it is thought, were the currus falcati which the ancients used in combat. It is possible that a device for flying shall be made such that a man sitting in the middle of it and turning a crank shall cause artificial wings to beat the air after the manner of a bird's flight. Similarly, it is possible to construct a small-sized instrument for elevating and depressing great weights, a device which is most useful in certain exigencies. For a man may ascend and descend, and may deliver himself and his companions from peril of prison, by means of a device of small weight and of a height of three fingers and a breadth of four. It is possible also easily to make an instrument by which a single man may violently pull a thousand men toward himself in spite of opposition, or other things which are tractable.
Before we go any farther, it is worth noting that there is debate about whether the text belongs to Bacon or was written after his death by someone using materials associated with Bacon. For our purposes, it does not matter since even a forged text is still medieval and likely from within a century or so of the death of Bacon. For convenience I will refer to the author as Bacon, the traditional attribution.
The first paragraph is, basically, science fiction—Bacon’s fantasy about what could be done in the future. He is trying to say that science will create wonders that will outstrip the supposed wonders of magic. The second paragraph describes actual reports of scientific wonders. Whether they are true is another story, but they were believed to be true. Medieval versions of the Alexander Romance contain, for example, the description of the bathysphere that he supposedly used to visit the bottom of the sea. Bathyspheres had been used in ancient times, and references to them in Aristotle helped to inspire medieval legends. This is not our concern here, but the point is that the author wasn’t making it up.
The next line about the flying machine is interesting in that it appears to claim that Bacon knew a man who built a flying machine. It does not, however, say that this was an airplane. Bacon also says he never saw the machine but only heard tell of it.
Hanks got his mangled quotation from Fulbright scholar Benjamin B. Olshin’s Lost Knowledge: The Concept of Vanished Technologies and Other Human Histories (Brill, 2019), where the author inexplicably runs the various sentences from the 1597 translation together even after correctly giving the translation from Tenney Davis. Hanks simply copied word-for-word without checking the source. Olshin, similarly, did not read the original but copied from a photograph of part of a page of the original in J. E. Hodgson’s History of Aeronautics in Great Britain, but his choice to excerpt deceptively baffles me.
Bacon appears to be referring to something like a hang glider, which was already known in the medieval world. While the text seems to imply that Bacon knew the inventor personally, knowing him “by name” more likely refers to the fact that he knew of the man who had invented such a device. As a product of the period after Arabic texts History of Aeronautics in Great Britain became available in Europe, the author might have known, for example, of the story of Andalusian scholar Abbas ibn Firnas (810-887 CE) who supposedly attached wings to his body and glided for some distance before crashing. The best-known account of his flight was written too late—in the 1500s—for Bacon to have read it, but that text claims that a ninth century document described it, and there was apparently a textual tradition about it.
The original Latin of Bacon’s letter is a bit ambiguous. In the key word is “cognsco,” meaning “I know” or “I am acquainted with” or “I am familiar with.” In the same paragraph, Bacon uses the word three times, once meaning that he is familiar with something, once to mean he does not personally know a person, and then this third time where either might be meant by the context when discussing the inventor of the flying machine. It sounds like he’s saying somebody told him about inventing a glider, but there isn’t enough detail to know for sure that he didn’t mean he was fully informed about someone who once did.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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