Project (2016-2017)

The Circulation of Invention: Roger Bacon’s Theory of Technology in Early Modern Europe

According to Roger Bacon (b. 1214/1220, d. ca. 1292), a more complete understanding of natural laws and the properties of things would foster wonderful inventions: incredibly fast conveyances that could move independent of animal power; submarines and diving bells for exploring the ocean floor; machines for human flight; alchemical processes that could prolong life; and mirrors and lenses that could set fire to entire armies or produce terrifying and delightful optical illusions. These speculative technologies exemplify the promise of scientia experimentalis, Bacon’s theory of technology, which authenticated natural knowledge and offered a blueprint for how human ingenuity could harness the secret, untapped potential of nature.

My second book, provisionally titled The Stunning Inventions of Roger Bacon: Scientific Knowledge and the Promise of Technology, argues that Bacon’s theory of technology—currently under-examined—was compelling and relevant to later scholars writing about optics, alchemy, and natural philosophy through the seventeenth century, and that interest in this theory accounts for the circulation of specific texts under his name. Like many other scholars of the thirteenth century, Bacon was strongly influenced by earlier Arabic scientific texts, particularly Ibn Hayytham’s work on optics and on Philip of Tripoli’s translation of the Kitab sirr al-asrar into the Secretum secretorum. These texts, which he encountered in Paris, offer explanations of how human ingenuity might use nature to create machines, instruments, or effects. Bacon first explicated his idea of scientia experimentalis in his Opus maius (ca. 1265): experience (knowledge gained from observation or other sensory perception) confirms and also corrects rationality (reasoning from first principles or knowledge gained from texts) and is necessary to a full understanding of things. The purpose of scientia experimentalis was threefold: to affirm or refute theories; to create instruments or machines to pursue knowledge; and to uncover the secrets of nature.

Bacon later amplified his explanation of scientia experimentalis in his Letter on the Hidden Powers of Art and Nature, and on the Invalidity of Magic (Epistola de secretis operibus artis et naturae et de nullitate magiae) (ca. 1270s). My project illuminates the significance of this text, which includes passages on fantastical machines, optical illusions, and alchemy, to the wider dissemination of Bacon’s theory of scientia experimentalis and his argument for the potential of technology. Hidden Powers appears in multiple manuscript versions in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and in print in multiple Latin, French, and English editions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was often included alongside an alchemical text, the Speculum alchemiae, attributed to Bacon in the early modern period, and these texts both reflected and augmented Bacon’s reputation as an alchemist and an experimentalist.

My study reveals the extent to which Roger Bacon’s emphasis on machines as necessary to the scientific enterprise, alongside his insistence on applied science and experimentum, resonated with natural philosophers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Francis Bacon, who articulated and championed a new natural philosophy based on induction, cited Roger Bacon as the only Scholastic to have avoided the philosophical errors that, in his view, plagued the rest—and this was due to Roger Bacon’s writing on scientia experimentalis. The Stunning Inventions of Roger Bacon demonstrates that Bacon’s reputation in the early modern period as an experimentalist rests on his insistence that machines and instruments are necessary to observe and acquire natural knowledge and to confirm theoretical precepts.