Modern cars and airplanes were accurately described as long ago as the thirteenth century by the English Franciscan monk Roger Bacon. Bacon, probably the earliest scientist in the modern sense, lived from around 1214 to 1292. He was learned in the classics and in the scholarship of the Arabs. In 1247 Bacon resigned his chair at the University of Paris and devoted himself to experimental science, studying and teaching at Oxford.
Well ahead of his time, Bacon successfully demonstrated the magnifying glass. And in his Epistola de Secretis Operibus, he wrote “cars can be made so that without animals they will move with unbelievable rapidity,” and “flying machines can be constructed so that a man sits in the midst of the machine revolving some engines by which artificial wings are made to beat the air like a flying bird.” Other predictions included steamships, submarines, diving suits and telescopes.
But contemporary ignorance destroyed the reputation of Bacon. His scientific theories were reduced to the “predictions” of a mere soothsayer because people feared his interest in Muslim texts and mathematics. Muslims were popularly believed to practice sorcery, and mathematics was widely assumed to be a black art as late as the sixteenth century.
In about 1256 Roger Bacon retired to Paris – some say he was expelled from England – and in 1277, the General of the Franciscan Order banned his books. He was also imprisoned for heretical teachings.
In life Bacon’s experiments and interest in unconventional philosophy and alchemy earned him the nickname Doctor Mirabilis (The Admirable Doctor). After death, the legend that he was a wizard gathered momentum. One story reported that Friar Bacon made a prophetic head of brass, but was warned by a spirit that he must listen when the head first spoke. Bacon set his assistant Miles to watch the brazen head. Soon the head said, “Time is.” Miles did not understand and ignored it. Later it said, “Time was.” Again Miles ignored it. Finally it said, “Time is passed,” and exploded in flames, so the chance to consult was lost.
Like Faust, Bacon reputedly signed a pact with the devil in return for magic skills, promising his soul except if he died neither inside the church nor outside it. It was said he cheated the devil by creating a cell in the wall of a church, where he remained until he died, neither inside nor outside.