Elly Truitt will give a Brown Bag Lunch presentation on Monday, March 19, at 12:15 pm. Her talk is entitled “Ingenious Inventions and the Secrets of Nature: The Marvels of Alexander the Great and Roger Bacon in Thirteenth-Century Natural Philosophy.”

According to Roger Bacon (ca. 1220–ca. 1292) a more complete understanding of natural laws and the properties of things would foster wonderful inventions: incredibly fast conveyances that could move independent of animal power; submarines and diving bells for exploring the ocean floor; machines for human flight; and mirrors and lenses that could set fire to entire armies or produce terrifying and delightful optical illusions. These speculative technologies exemplify the promise of scientia experimentalis, which authenticated natural knowledge and offered a blueprint for how human ingenuity could harness the secret, untapped potential of nature. According to Bacon, the purpose of scientia experimentalis was threefold: to affirm or refute theories; to create instruments or machines to pursue knowledge; and to uncover the secrets of nature. In this talk, Truitt will explore some of Bacon’s source material for the fantastical machines and inventions that he proposed, and argue that scientific, political, and imaginative texts alike influenced his ideas of what kinds of machines could be possible. Like others, Bacon was strongly influenced by earlier Arabic scientific texts, particularly Ibn Hayytham’s work on optics and on Philip of Tripoli’s translation of the Kitab sirr al-asrar into the Secretum secretorum. These texts offer explanations of how human ingenuity might use nature to create machines, instruments, or effects. Yet the Alexander romance tradition also played a role, as many versions of this widely adapted narrative include manufactured marvels and strange machines. Truitt will demonstrate that Bacon uses his sources to imagine a new future, one that is based in part on the achievements of the past. He combines renovatio with innovatio, the recovery of past knowledge with the invention of a new future.

Elly Truitt is Associate Professor of Medieval History at Bryn Mawr College. She did her graduate work in medieval history and the history of science at the University of Cambridge and Harvard University. Her research has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the Max-Planck-Institute for the History of Science, and the Huntington Library. She is the author of Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature, and Art (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), and has published numerous scholarly articles on the history of automata, astral science, pharmacobotany, and scientific translation. Her work has also appeared in Aeon, History Today, and the Times Literary Supplement. She is currently working on a project about Roger Bacon.