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Roger Bacon – Medieval scientist who invented the “predicting machine”

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The English Franciscan monk Roger Bacon, who lived in the 13th century, is considered one of the most notable scientists and philosophers of the Middle Ages. His scientific works are well known. Much less is known about the fact that Bacon was also fond of the occult and once allegedly created a “mechanical talking head.”

Oracle for the Pope

This may seem like a myth, but references to “talking heads” have been found in various sources since the 12th century. So, in European manuscripts, we are talking about “copper heads”, which were mechanical automata that issued predictions. In Arabic manuscripts, severed human heads or skulls utter prophecies.

But back to the copper heads.

If you believe the above, they were made of brass or bronze and spoke with the help of movable lower jaws on hinges. The heads could answer questions asked, as well as predict future events.

It was assumed that a certain “magic power” was contained within the mechanism. Many mystics sought to get such an artefact, and some made the item themselves.

The chronicler William Malmesbury, in The History of the Kings of England, spoke of Herbert of Aurillac, who lived in the tenth century. Using secret knowledge obtained from a book he stole from Al-Andalus, a Muslim region located on the Iberian Peninsula, this man made such an oracle head. True, she (the head) answered questions only with the words “yes” or “no.” Subsequently, Herbert became pope under the name of Sylvester II. The head is said to have predicted his own death as well.

Demon’s Gift

It is said that a similar mechanism was developed by the English statesman, philosopher, theologian and scientist Bishop of Lincoln Robert Grosseteste. Like many prominent minds of that time, he was fond of alchemy. The head seemed to utter one prophecy and then exploded.

And the German Dominican monk Albertus Magnus allegedly received such a head from a demon and made a copper body for it. But the head chatted without stopping, and this angered the student of Magnus – Thomas Aquinas so much that he once destroyed it in a rage.

Head Explosion

As for Bacon, he believed that a copper head would help protect England from enemies. The development process took seven years. The master was assisted by the monk Bangay and the servant Miles. The invention looked like “an exact copper copy of the human head with the internal parts of all parts and organs in the human head.” But for some reason, she refused to talk.

According to legend, Bacon summoned some kind of demon, not the devil himself, who said that the head would speak if it were fed by “continuous smoke from the six most famous simple ones.”

Roger Bacon
Roger Bacon. Photograph taken by Michael Reeve. Wikipedia

“Simple” in alchemy refers to some herbs and plants. They were to be placed in a pot, heated under the head so the steam would heat it.

The same legend tells that Bacon and his assistants heated their heads with steam for several weeks. Somehow Bacon and Bungay got tired and went to bed, leaving Miles to watch over his head. In order not to fall asleep, he began to play the violin. And suddenly, the head spoke. True, she uttered only one single phrase: “There is time. Time was. Time has passed.”

The book “The Famous Historie of Friar Bacon, Containing the Wonderful Things That He Did in His Life” describes this event as follows:

“Then followed a terrible noise with strange flashes of fire, such that Miles was half dead with fear. He dropped the violin and fell to his knees, and the room filled with smoke. Hearing the noise, both monks woke up, rushed into the cell and saw that Miles was beating himself in the chest and screaming, and on the floor lay the Brass Head, all in smoke.

The monks who came running to the noise found the head broken into fragments.

Of course, you can not one hundred per cent believe in the veracity of this story, as well as others on the same topic. Moreover, for the first time, the copper head made by Bacon was mentioned only in the 16th century, three centuries after the scientist’s death. It is impractical to exclude the possibility that Bacon and other researchers actually did some work on manufacturing such mechanisms. But did they end up using them for their intended purpose?

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