Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Sympathetic Telegraph

In reading The Discoverers: A History of Man's Search to Know His World and Himself, by Daniel J. Boorstin, I came across a reference to a fascinating historical character.

Giambattista della Porta was a true Renaissance man of Italy; he was a polymath and wrote intelligently on dozens of subjects. Most noteworthy is his Magica Naturalis, or Natural Magic, which appears to have been banned, then unbanned, by the Inquisition. The book was as much about what was understood in that time as "science," but also bristles with pseudo-occult matters.

I've not read it, just an abstract of its contents. One thing that I found fascinating was the so-called "sympathetic telegraph." I'll let Wikipedia explain it:

"In the book, Porta also mentioned an imaginary device known as a sympathetic telegraph. The device consisted of two circular boxes, similar to compasses, each with a magnetic needle, supposed to be magnetized by the same lodestone.
Each box was to be labeled with the 26 letters, instead of the usual directions. Porta assumed that this would coordinate the needles such that when a letter was dialed in one box, the needle in the other box would swing to point to the same letter, thereby helping in communicating."

No information on whether he ever actually built this, and, surprise, later researchers confirmed this does not work. But it's a great idea for some form of long-range communication device in a fantastic fictional setting.

Another interesting bit about Porta was his genius in cryptography. He invented a method of writing secret messages on the insides of eggs. Again, from Wikipedia:

"During the Spanish Inquisition, some of his friends were imprisoned. At the gate of the prison, everything was checked except for eggs. Della Porta wrote messages on the egg shell using a mixture made of plant pigments and alum. The ink penetrated the egg shell which is semi-porous. When the egg shell was dry, he boiled the egg in hot water and the ink on the outside of the egg was washed away. When the recipient in prison peeled off the shell, the message was revealed once again on the egg white."

Cool! I am glad I discovered this interesting fellow, and I am sure both the sympathetic telegraph and crypto-eggs will make its way into my Swords Against Satan game setting (weird fantasy in Elizabethan England).

Boorstin's book The Discoverers, by the way, is an incredible adventure. It tells of man's struggles and triumphs in discovering (and making) the world around him, ranging from astronomy, time, geography, nature, biology, printing and other things. If you enjoy the historical segments of, say, Cosmos, you'd enjoy Boorstin. 

1 comment:

  1. I haven't read Boorstin in years, very much the historian. Use to have a history book of his somwhere.