Roger Bacon: History's Forgotten Genius

You know all about how Leonardo Da Vinci was a great visionary and inventor and several centuries ahead of his time, but what do you know about Roger Bacon? In terms of being a scientific visionary, Roger Bacon fits in quite snugly behind Da Vinci, at least as far as predicting future inventions that at the time seemed outlandish. Outlandish enough, anyway, for this Franciscan friar to essentially be placed under house arrest. Bacon was openly critical of much of the authoritarian excesses of church leaders and quickly made a pariah of himself. While in confinement, however, Bacon spent his time studying rather than feeling sorry for himself or plotting revenge against his enemies. And that studying produced some truly extraordinary foresight. In plain language, albeit written in Latin, Bacon peered into future in ways that are much less open to interpretation than the much better known Nostradamus.

Among the items detailed in Bacon’s journals were ships that would have no need of rowers and that would cut through the oceans at a far greater speed guided by the hand of one man than ships that needed a full complement of rowers. Bacon also wrote of a “chariot” that would move faster than any then known, and without the benefit of an animal pulling it. In other words, an automobile. Of course, it must be noted that Bacon’s vision of a flying machine involved wings that flapped like the wings of a bird. Of course, he should probably be forgiven for that miscalculation since, after all, he was writing in the 1200’s.

Roger Bacon actually holds a place in scientific history as the first person to ever propose the idea that a person’s vision could be improved through the use of artificial lenses. Although Bacon did not actually invent eyeglasses, he may have had a direct hand in their invention since he actually lived long to see them become a reality. Roger Bacon was also at the forefront of the movement to reform the calendar. The calendar still in use at the time was hopelessly inaccurate and outdated and Bacon urged the adoption of a new, more scientifically accurate calendar. He was unsuccessful in these attempts, but was eventually vindicated when Pope Gregory XIII adopted a new calendar that was nearly identical. That calendar is known as the Gregorian Calendar and one is probably hanging on a wall near you right this very moment.

The greatest scientific legacy of Roger Bacon is probably not in his predictions, but rather in his devotion to a process of experimentation through trial and error that is popularly known as the scientific process today. Bacon was a leader in the development of scientific advancement through observation and experimentation. He recognized more than most the value of learning through failure and progressing forward through taking leaps of not only faith, but of logic. Roger Bacon presented a challenge to the prevailing scientific wisdom of his age that relied on pure logic rather than applying logic to real world situations through precise measurements and keen observation. His name has been lost to history, but he stands as a towering figure in the history of science.