Friar Roger Bacon’s Technological Prediction

Roger Bacon was a 13th century English friar and early scientist. He was an Aristotelian, but believed in experiment rather than just relying on observation and the acceptance of received opinion. He also predicted some of the inventions of the 19th and 20th centuries, such as self-driving ships, cars and flying machines. He made these startling predictions in a letter to a William of Paris in a letter, the Epistola de Secretis Operibus of 1260. This stated

‘Now an instrument for sailing without oarsmen can be produced such that the larger ships, both riverboats and seagoing vessels, can be moved under the direction of a single man at a greater velocity than if they were filled with men. A chariot can be made that moves at unimaginable speed without horses; such we think to have been the scythe-bearing chariots with which men fought in antiquity. And an instrument for flying can be made, such that a man sits in the middle of it, turning some sort of device by which artificially constructed wings beat the air in the way a flying bird does’.

(Trans. Michael S. Mahoney, quoted in Mike Ashley, Yesterday’s Tomorrows: The Story of Classic British Science Fiction in 100 Books (London: British Library 2020) 56.

As you can see, he doesn’t know how such devices could be constructed, and his description of how an aircraft would work is wrong, although people have constructed such ornithopters. But nevertheless he was right in that science and technological has led to the invention of these kinds of machines. It also struck me that there’s material in there for SF and Fantasy writers to imagine the kind of Middle Ages that would have arisen had Bacon or his contemporaries invented such devices, or what the ancient world would have been like had Bacon been right about the technology he believed they possessed.


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7 Responses to “Friar Roger Bacon’s Technological Prediction”

  1. trev Says:

    Was he a Diviner or Clairvoyant making prophecies, perhaps seeing visions of the future, a sort of Nostradamus figure or earlier Mother Shipton?

    • beastrabban Says:

      I don’t think he was, though it certainly went on in clerical circles. But I think he simply thought that experimental science could produce these marvels. And the statement about ancient chariots suggests that it was a general belief that the Romans had such marvels.

      • trev Says:

        It just struck me with the similarity with Old Mother Shipton’s prophecy about “horseless carriages”, use of same phraseology, although the Shipton prophecies may well have been Victorian fakery.

      • beastrabban Says:

        I see the similarity, but I don’t think he had or claimed any supernatural power, although after is death he was credited with being a magician.

  2. Brian Burden Says:

    Leonardo produced designs for an ornithopter and a helicopter, but he seems to have had no understanding of the principles of aerodynamics. As late as the eighteen eighties the Boys Own Paper was telling its readers that birds flew by exuding an invisible fluid over their wings, so man didn’t have a hope! Given that modern aircraft designs are largely devised and tested by computers before the first prototypes are even built, I’m surprised nobody yet has produced a full-size functioning ornithopter. The late nineteenth century seems to have been aeroplane time, with inventors in Europe and USA producing half-way successful experimental craft. Amos Dolbear referred to these in an article entitled “Will Man Ever Fly?” stating basically that if big birds like albatrosses and herons can get into the air and stay there, then sooner or later man will find a way to do the same.

    • beastrabban Says:

      I hadn’t heard about that weird theory of bird flight put out by the Boy’s Own Paper. Presumably it was part of the 19th century belief in various forms of invisible fluids, like phlogiston, which was supposed to be responsible for fire and the ether, which was supposed to pervade the universe and explain light and atoms and such before the Michelson-Morley experiment disproved it.

      The French did build a prototype ornithopter, but I don’t know if it ever successfully took off. The Beeb showed footage a little while ago of an ornithopter from Canada, I believe, which was built in the 70s/early 80s which came the closest, almost taking off and making little jumps as it taxied along.

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