Posts Tagged ‘Yesterday's Tomorrows: The Story of Classic British Science Fiction in 100 Books’

Friar Roger Bacon’s Technological Prediction

December 29, 2022

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.