29 January 2004

Bacon the Prophet?

I was reading The Ancient Engineers by L. Srague de Camp recently, and came across this quote from Francis Bacon:
Vessels can be made which row without men, so that they can sail onward like the greatest river or sea-going craft, steered by a single man; and their speed is greater than if they were filled with oarsmen. Likewise carriages can be built that are drawn by no animal but travel with incredible power, as we hear of the chariots armed with scythes of the ancients. Flying machines can be constructed, so that a man, sitting in the middle of the machine, guides it by a skillful mechanism and traverses the air like a bird in flight. Moreover, instruments can be made which, though themselves small, suffice to raise or to press down the heaviest weight . . . Similar instruments can be constructed, such as Alexander the Great ordered, for walking on the water or for diving.

That's from Epistola de secretis operibus artis et naturae, written sometime in the 13th century, thouh not published until the 18th. You'll find it on page 348 of de Camp's book.

The thing that really struck me in reading this, is how accurate Bacon's speculations are. While I don't think anyone's yet invented a device for walking on water, the other machines are pretty dead-on. Which made me wonder why no one's claimed Bacon was a prophet who predicted all the advances of recent centuries. I mean, compare this passage with some of Nostradamus' drivel. But maybe it's a good thing. After all, what is obviously skilled thought about the potential applications of science in practical ares to a scientist would look like really good prohetic visions to a crackpot, and there'd be no arguing with the crackpot (or the scientist). Then again, it's seldom possible to argue with a crackpot anyway.

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