1902 Encyclopedia > Aeronautics > Aerostatics in the Dark Ages (Middle Ages)

(Part 3)

Aerostatics in the Dark Ages (Middle Ages)

The history of aerostatics in the Middle Ages, like that of every other subject relating even remotely to science or knowledge of any kind, is little better than a record of the falsehoods or chimeras circulated by impostors or enthusiasts. Truth was completely obscured by ignorance and fanaticism, and every person of superior talents and acquirements was believed to deal in magic, and to perform his feats of skill chiefly through the secret aid granted him by the prince of darkness; and in a later and comparatively recent period, those wretched creatures whom the unfeeling credulity of our ancestors, particularly during the prevalence of religious fanaticism, stigmatized and murdered under the denomination of witches, were supposed to work all their enchantments, to change their shapes at will, and to transport themselves through the air with the swiftness of thought, by a power derived from their infernal master, to whom was thus assigned the privilege of conferring the gift of aerial navigation upon his servants.

During the darkness of the Middle Ages every one at all distinguished for his knowledge in physics was generally reputed to have obtained the power of flying in the air. Friar Bacon did not scruple to claim the invention; and the credulity and indulgent admiration of some authors have lent to these pretensions more credit than they really deserved. Any one who takes the trouble to examine the passages of Bacon's obscure and ponderous works will find that the propositions advanced by him are seldom founded on reality, but ought rather to be considered as the illusions of a lively fancy. Albertus Magnus, who flourished in the first half of the 13th century, was reputed to have discovered the art; and to give an idea of the state of the physical sciences at the time, it si worth while to quote the following recipes from his De Mirabilibus Naturoe: - "Take one pound of sulphur, two pounds of willow-carbon, six pounds of rock-salt ground very fine in a marble mortar; place, when you please, in a covering made of flying papyrus to produce thunder. The covering, in order to ascend and float away, should be long, graceful, well filled with this fine powder; but to produce thunder, the covering should be short, thick, and half full." (Quoted in Astra Castra. P. 25.) Regiomontanus, the first real mathematician after the partial revival of learning, is said, like Archytas, to have formed an artificial dove, which flew before the Emperor Charles V. at his public entry into Nuremberg; but the date of Regiomontanus' death shows this to have been impossible.

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