This edited article about Roger Bacon originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1047 published on 3 April 1982.
No one is quite certain about the lifespan of Roger Bacon. He was born in Ilchester, Somerset, in 1220 or thereabouts, and lived until about 1292. Although he is perhaps best remembered as the man who invented magnifying lenses, he was in fact a scientist and a philosopher, living in an age when most scientific ideas were taken from the writings of the ancients, many of which were based on pure superstition.
This remarkable man is thought to have studied both in Oxford and in Paris. His earlier career was as a lecturer in the faculty of arts in Paris. But in 1247, he returned to Oxford where he studied what were then considered “new” subjects, namely languages, mathematics, optics, alchemy, and astronomy.
After 10 years of experimental research, he became disillusioned with his work and the apathy of those around him, and in 1257 became a Franciscan friar.
In a scientific paper written in 1260, he made an incredibly prophetic statement. Bacon said that the magnifying power of lenses could be used in an instrument we now know as a telescope, and he described what might be seen through one. “A small army may appear a very great one,” he wrote, “and Man will be able to study the Moon and the stars in great detail.” It was not until 1608, however, that a Dutchman, Hans Lippershey, produced the first efficient telescope.
In another of his prophetic papers Bacon wrote: “Ships will go without rowers, and with only a single man to guide them. Machines for flying can be made in which a man sits and skilfully devised wings strike the air in the manner of a bird.”
Roger Bacon was warned many times by his superiors to cease writing and teaching such heresies. But he ignored them, and instead wrote to Pope Clement IV, an intelligent and enlightened man, who had already shown interest in Bacon’s projects.
For 18 months, Bacon submerged himself in the writing of scientific things as he understood them. He sent three books to the pope in 1268, and they became the 13th century equivalent of a modern encyclopedia.
Unfortunately, Pope Clement died that same year, and as Bacon no longer had his protection, he was imprisoned for his unorthodox teachings, and he remained in captivity for 14 years.
While he was in prison, he wrote another book in which he suggested ways of keeping old age at bay. He managed to send it to Pope Nicholas IV, who sent instructions that he should be released. The now aged scientist returned to Oxford to continue his work, but his health began to fail, and he died within a few years.
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