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Roger Bacon

Inventors and scientists

Roger Bacon
c. 1214, Ilchester, Somerset
1294, Oxford

Roger Bacon, who was also known as Doctor Mirabilis (Latin for “Wonderful Teacher”), was an English Franciscan philosopher and educational reformer, as well as a major medieval proponent of experimental science. Bacon studied mathematics, astronomy, optics, alchemy, and languages.

Roger Bacon

He was the first European to describe in detail the process of making gunpowder, and he proposed flying machines and motorized ships and carriages. Bacon (as he himself complacently remarked) displayed a prodigious energy and zeal in the pursuit of experimental science; indeed, his studies were talked about everywhere and eventually won him a place in popular literature as a kind of wonder worker. Bacon therefore represents a historically precocious expression of the empirical spirit of experimental science, even though his actual practice of it seems to have been exaggerated.

University and Scientific Career

In the earlier part of his career, Bacon lectured in the faculty of arts at the University of Paris on Aristotelian and pseudo-Aristotelian treatises, displaying no indication of his later preoccupation with science. However, beginning in about 1247, Bacon expended much time and energy and huge sums of money in experimental research, in acquiring “secret” books, in the construction of instruments and of tables, in the training of assistants, and in seeking the friendship of savants-activities that marked a definite departure from the usual routine of the faculty of arts. From 1247 to 1257, he devoted himself wholeheartedly to the cultivation of new branches of learning, including languages, optics, and alchemy, and to further studies in astronomy and mathematics.

Bacon extolled experimentation so ardently that he has often been viewed as a harbinger of modern science more than 300 years before it came to bloom. However, Bacon’s originality lay not so much in any positive contribution to the sum of knowledge but rather in his insistence on fruitful lines of research and methods of experimental study. Bacon’s studies on the nature of light and on the rainbow are especially noteworthy, and he seems to have planned and interpreted these experiments carefully. But his many other “experiments” seem never to have been actually performed; they were merely described. He suggested, for example, that a balloon of thin copper sheet be made and filled with “liquid fire”; he felt that it would float in the air as many light objects do in water. He seriously studied the problem of flying in a machine with flapping wings. Bacon also elucidated the principles of reflection, refraction, and spherical aberration and proposed mechanically  propelled  ships  and  carriages. He used a camera obscura, which projects an image through a pinhole, to observe eclipses of the Sun.

The Order of Friars Minor

By 1257, Bacon had entered into the Order of Friars Minor, a branch of the Franciscan Christian religious  order. However, he soon fell ill and felt (as he wrote) forgotten by everyone and all but buried. Furthermore, his feverish activity, his amazing credulity, his superstition, and his vocal  contempt  for  those  not  sharing  his  interests  displeased his superiors in the order and brought him under severe discipline. He appealed to Pope Clement IV, arguing that a more accurate experimental knowledge of nature would be of great value in confirming the Christian faith. Bacon felt that his proposals would be of great importance for the welfare of the church and of the universities.

The pope desired to become more fully informed of these projects. In obedience to the pope’s command, Bacon set to work and in a remarkably short time had dispatched the Opus majus (“Great Work”), the Opus minus (“Lesser Work”), and the Opus tertium (“Third Work”). He had to do this secretly, and even when the irregularity of his conduct attracted the attention of his superiors and the terrible weapons of spiritual coercion were brought to bear upon him, he was deterred from explaining his position by the papal command of secrecy. Under the circumstances, his achievement was truly astounding. The Opus majus was an effort to persuade the pope of the urgent necessity and broad utility of the reforms that he proposed. But the death of Clement in 1268 extinguished Bacon’s dreams of gaining for the sciences their rightful place in the curriculum of university studies. Sometime between 1277 and 1279, Bacon was condemned to prison by his fellow Franciscans because of certain “suspected novelties” in his teaching. The condemnation was probably issued in part because of his excessive credulity in alchemy and astrology. How long he was imprisoned is unknown.

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