Don’t Try This At Home: Curious Adventures in Mediaeval Science and Technology

Ælfred se leof

This article first appeared in Cockatrice May AS 49 (2014).

While researching mediaeval kites for an arts and sciences competition and Cockatrice article some years ago, I read that one Giovanni della Porta (1535 – 1615) suggested some curious uses for kites in his Magia Naturalis of 1558 (se leof, 2006). Having considered (actual) kites bearing kittens and puppies into the air, della Porta suggests that a man could be taught to fly by training him from birth to beat large wings attached to his arms.

So far as I know, no one has ever attempted to validate della Porta’s theory by supplying their children with wings. That’s probably a good thing, but I nonetheless felt that thinkers like della Porta deserved recognition for the, ahem, unusual scope and originality of their ambitions. So I set out to compile a collection of what we would now call “mad science”.

Any definition of “mad science” is somewhat subjective: presumably the philosophers mentioned in this article thought that their ideas were perfectly reasonable. As any crank will tell you, many ideas that seemed ridiculous at first are now widely accepted. (Of course cranks fail to mention that many more ideas that seemed ridiculous at first continued to seem ridiculous after the second, third, fourth and all subsequent examinations.) In this article, I’ve selected a range of ideas that are at once “scientific” in the sense that they are based upon theories developed by study of the natural world (however flawed) and mad” in the sense that their ambition lies outside the range of what we would consider normal”

So far as I am aware, no one has established a comprehensive and authoritative repository of crazy ideas throughout history, though the Annals of Improbable Research perform this service for modern scientists and I first encountered several of the ideas mentioned in this article in Reto U. Schneider’s Mad Science Book (2008). I’ve consequently been reduced to collecting these stories haphazardly over the time I’ve spent reading about the history of science. Any readers knowing of other ideas fitting the theme of this collection are welcome to send them to me via e-mail.


While I haven’t heard of anyone teaching their children to fly, plenty of thinkers throughout history haven’t been afraid to experiment on children in other ways. One experiment purported to have been carried out several times in antiquity and the Middle Ages intended to find out which language is the original one spoken by humans (Sułak, 1989).

The Greek historian Herodotus records a story, apparently well-known at the time, of the Egyptian Pharaoh Psammetichus (664 – 610 BC), who reasoned that children brought up without being exposed to any language would come to speak whatever language was natural for humans. So he took two new-born children and left them in the care of a herdsman, who was forbidden to speak to them. After two years, the children were heard to speak the Phrygian word for “bread”, leading Psammetichus to conclude that Phrygian was the natural language of humans.

There are several flaws in Psammetichus’ reasoning, even if we put aside the unjustified assumption that there is a universal human language. Most obviously, one word does not a language make, and it seems eminently plausible that the children (if they existed at all) simply produced some random babbling that happened to sound like “bread” to the adults around them.

Later experimenters of this sort include the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II (1194-1250), King James IV of Scotland (1473-1515) and Akbar the Great of India (1556-1605). Frederick’s attempt is the most widely known, but was terminated by the deaths of all of the children involved, supposedly due to the lack of affection shown to them. Akbar’s subjects survived, but were unable to speak.


Medicine is such a magnet for crazy ideas that English has a special word — “quackery” — to describe nonsense of a medical nature. Mediaeval medicine, based on theories of Galen that we now know to be hopelessly misguided, is notorious for treatments that were both gruesome and ineffective, if not downright harmful. David Wootton’s book Bad Medicine (2006) chronicles dangerous medical practices from antiquity to the present day, but he doesn’t include any of the following treatments — possibly because they actually worked.

In relating the history of a sixteenth-century Italian surgeon by the name of Gaspare Tagliacozzi (1545 – 1599), Martha Teach Gnudi and Jerome Pierce Webster (1950) quote the story of an earlier Spanish surgeon who happened to be on hand when one Messer Andres Gutiero had his nose cut off during an altercation with a soldier. Aware of the antiseptic properties of urine, the quick-thinking surgeon promptly urinated on the severed nose and re-attached it to its owner. The operation appears to have been successful.

Tagliacozzi himself gives instructions on how to re-construct missing noses, which you can find summarised on his page at the UK’s Science Museum. Tagliacozzi cuts a flap of skin from the patient’s arm, then sews the flap (still attached to the arm) over the nose’s former position. Around twenty days later, the skin of arm grows into the nose, and the arm can be cut free. A further fourteen days later, the flap is ready to be shaped into a nose.

Unless you’re a plastic surgeon, you probably won’t have much opportunity to replace anyone’s nose (and, if you are, you probably have more efficient procedures than Tagliacozzi’s). But if you’ve ever tried to lose weight, you might appreciate the achievement of Sanctorius Sanctorius (1561 – 1636), an Italian physician known for his contribution to the measurement of body mass.

Sanctorius meticulously weighed himself, all of the food that he ate, and all of the urine and excreta that he emitted for a thirty-year span near the end of the SCA period (Schneider, 2008). He published his observations in De Statica Medicina in 1614, including his famous finding that a person who eats eight pounds of food a day will typically lose five pounds in “insensible perspiration”, that is, not into the toilet.


I’ve already mentioned Giovanni della Porta’s scheme for getting people into the air. Lynn White Jr. details several even earlier attempts in an article entitled Eilmer of Malmesbury, an Eleventh Century Aviator (1961).

Eilmer was a monk at the abbey of Malmesbury in England. The same abbey was later inhabited by the well-known historian William of Malmesbury (c. 1095 – c. 1143) who, writing around a century after Eilmer’s time, records that Eilmer “fastened wings to his hands and feet … and, collecting the breeze on the summit of a tower, he flew for more than the distance of a furlong.” (A furlong is a distance of about 200 metres). Eilmer subsequently fell out of the air, breaking both legs and leaving him lame for the rest of his life.

Eilmer is, in fact, the second person reported to have achieved this feat, including its disappointing conclusion. The seventeenth-century Moroccan historian al-Maqqarī, apparently using earlier sources that no longer exist, records that an Andalusian by the name of Abbās ibn Firnās undertook a remarkably similar venture in the ninth century. al-Maqqarī’s sources report that ibn Firnās “covered himself with feathers …, attached a couple of wings to his body, and … flung himself into the air.” After flying “a considerable distance”, he managed to return to his starting point, only to hurt his back in the landing.

White thinks that Eilmer’s wings “were intended to flap like those of a bird”, though it seems equally likely to me that both Eilmer and ibn Firnās simply glid over the distances that they are reported to have travelled, something like a modern hang-glider. But the English friar Roger Bacon (c.~1214 – 1294), an early proponent of experimental science, clearly envisaged the flapping of wings in On the Marvellous Power of Artifice and Nature when he wrote “it is possible that a device for flying shall be made such that a man sitting in the middle of it and turning a crank will cause artificial wings to beat the air after the manner of a bird’s flight” (quoted in Hannam, 2009, p. 146).

Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519) took things a step further by proposing and drawing several flying machines, a concise summary of which can be found in Charles Gibbs-Smith and Gareth Rees’ The Inventions of Leonardo da Vinci (1978). Few people would describe da Vinci as a “mad scientist”, and he at least seems to have had the sense not to get into any if his proposed contraptions. But, ultimately, his ideas had no more success than those of Eilmer and ibn Firnās.

One of Leonardo da Vinci’s ornithopters.

That such things might fly probably seemed obvious to people who had only ever seen birds and bats fly, but Gibbs-Smith and Rees observe that (a) humans simply do not have enough muscle power to flap bird-like wings and (b) birds actually obtain their lift from the inner part of their wing rather than the down-beat of their feathers.

Later on in life, da Vinci came around to the idea of craft with a rotating screw supposed to work something like a modern helicopter. Gibbs-Smith and Rees say that flying toys using windmill-like rotors were actually constructed in the fourteenth century, some 150 years before da Vinci designed his machines, but I haven’t been able to find any other documentation for such toys. Numerous web sites also point to the existence of flying tops as far back as 400 BC in China, which appear on a timeline published by J. Gordon Leishman (2006). Leishman himself thinks that da Vinci’s design was based on Archimedes’ screw for lifting water, and makes no mention of flying tops being available in mediaeval Europe.

Leonardo da Vinci’s helicopter.

It wasn’t until 1783 that Joseph and Étienne Montgolfier achieved (safe) human flight in the world’s first hot air balloon, which used a completely different principle to the wing-based ideas espoused by mediaeval aviators (Scneiderer, 2008). Ibn Firnās and Eilmer, however, arguably have the last laugh in that most air travel today is conducted using fixed-wing heavier-than-air craft.


Whatever one thinks of Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machines, many of his military inventions might seem mad if later military thinkers hadn’t devised ideas even more terrible. Gibbs-Smith and Rees assert that “Leonardo was a gentle man” (p. 30), but he was nonetheless well-supplied with ideas for destroying fortresses with cannons and other artillery, and mowing down soldiers with chariot-driven scythes (p. 30) and exploding shrapnel (p.46).

Other military writers of the day, such as Conrad Kyeser (1366-?) and Hans Talhofer (c. 1410 – c. 1482), also produced descriptions of war machines including armoured vehicles that modern authors like to refer to as “tanks”. John Napier (1550 – 1617), a Scottish mathematician most famous for inventing the logarithm, proposed not only tanks but “burning mirrors” supposed to set ships alight from afar using a similar principle to the one used by modern school children to destroy ants with a magnifying glass (more on these below).

A “tank” from Conrad Kyeser’s Bellifortis (1405), supposedly used by
Alexander the Great. Soldiers enter through the door at the bottom of the
picture. The attachments along either side are scythes and cannons for keeping
the enemy at bay (Long, 2001, p. 108).

Napier’s letter, known as his Secrett Inventionis and re-printed in Mark Napier’s Memoirs of John Napier (1834), also proposes an artillery device able to lob a projectile into a field and destroy everyone within a certain distance of its landing point. It isn’t clear whether Napier ever built his other devices, but Thomas Urquhart (1611-1660) claims that the artillery device was successfully tested on a mile-wide field of Scottish sheep and cattle (quoted in Stewart & Minto, 1788, p. 15). Exactly how it worked is unclear.

The great grand-daddy of military invention, however, is Archimedes (c. 287 – c. 212 BC). Archimedes lived in Syracuse, a town in Sicily, which was famously besieged by Romans over 214-212 BC. According to Polybius’ Histories, Archimedes developed machines for hurling missiles at the ships as they approached, and built holes in the city walls through which archers and machines could fire at the invading soldiers. Most impressively, perhaps, he engineered a crane that was able to lift a ship by its prow. A ship caught by the crane could be lifted until it stood on its stern, and then dropped back into the water.

Later authors, beginning with Anthemius of Tralles (c.~500 AD), additionally credit Archimedes with the use of burning mirrors to set fire to the invading ships (Simms, 1977). While destroying ants in this manner is simple enough, and modern concentrated solar thermal power plants use a similar arrangement of mirrors to produce steam using the sun’s rays, engineers of Archimedes’ (and Napier’s) day faced a number of practical problems with constructing and using mirrors large enough to burn a ship. The earliest histories of the siege, in fact, make no mention of such a mirror existing. The Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University provides a detailed refutation of the myth as part of their pages on Archimedes at


Needless to say, I haven’t tried any of these. But however dangerous, gruesome, and/or unethical many of these experiments might have been using mediaeval technology, it might be argued that their inventors were often on the right track in that modern technology has actually achieved many of their goals. They just needed a few centuries’ further development.


Charles Gibbs-Smith and Gareth Rees. The Inventions of Leonardo da Vinci. Phaidon Press, Oxford, UK, 1978.

Martha Teach Gnudi and Jerome Pierce Webster. The Life and Times of Gaspare Tagliacozzi, Surgeon Bologna, 1545-1599. Herbert Reichner, New York, New York, 1950.

James Hannam. God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science. Icon, London, UK, 2009.

J. Gordon Leishman. Principles of Helicopter Aerodynamics. Cambridge University Press, New York, New York, 2006.

Pamela O .Long. Openness, Secrecy, Authorship: Technical Arts and the Culture of Knowledge from Antiquity to the Rennaisance. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland, 2001.

Mark Napier. Memoirs of John Napier of Merchiston,His Lineage, Life, and Times, With a History of the Invention of Logarithms. William Blackwood, Edinburgh, Scotland, 1834

Polybius. The Histories of Polybius. Loeb Classical Library. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachussetts, 1922. Translated by W. R. Paton.

Reto U. Schneider. The Mad Science Book. Quercus, London, UK, 2008. Translated by Peter Lewis.

Ælfred se leof. Flying dragons. Cockatrice, 30, 2006.

D. L. Simms. Archimedes and the burning mirrors at Syracuse. Technology and Culture, 16(1):1–18, 1977.

David Stewart and Walter Minto. An Account of the Life, Writing, and Inventions of John Napier, of Merchiston. R. Morison and Son, Perth, Scotland, 1788.

Antoni Sułak. The experiment of Psammetichus: Fact, fiction, and model to follow. Journal of the History of Ideas, 50(4):645–651, 1989.

L. White Jr. Eilmer of Malmesbury, an eleventh century aviator: A case study of technological innovation, its context and tradition. Technology and Culture, 2(2): 97–111, 1961.

David Wootton. Bad Medicine: Doctors Doing Harm Since Hippocrates. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 2006.