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A woodblock illustration from Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay
A woodblock illustration from Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Brazen Heads: The Curious Legend Behind Fortune-Telling Automata

A woodblock illustration from Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay
A woodblock illustration from Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay
Wikimedia // Public Domain

Fortune-telling automata—think Zoltar—were a fixture of penny arcades and amusement parks for generations of schoolchildren. But these creations owe their origin in part to the literary legend of the brazen head, an imaginary all-knowing mechanical device supposedly endowed with the ability to answer any question and predict the future. Called brazen because they were made of brass, their popularity peaked in the Renaissance, when plays and romances featured them and thinkers pondered the supposed mysteries of their making.

"A NATURAL MAN'S HEAD"

The most frequently referenced brazen head is the one allegedly made by 13th century Franciscan friar and philosopher Roger Bacon, although stories of its creation don't appear until centuries after his death. The anonymous 16th century prose romance The famous historie of Fryer Bacon describes the magical object as a precise brass replica of a “natural man’s head,” including “the inward parts,” and tells how Bacon, struggling to give it speech, summoned the Devil to ask him for advice. Satan announced that the head would speak after a few weeks, as long as it was powered by “the continuall fume of the six hottest simples,” a selection of plants used in alchemical medicine.

The tale formed part of the plot of the popular play Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, written by English dramatist and pamphleteer Robert Greene and first performed around 1589. In both accounts, Bacon’s ultimate purpose was to build a magical wall of brass around Britain to protect it against any invasions; the all-knowing head would have assisted him in the task. There is, however, a crucial difference: In the play, the “monstrous head” isn’t built by alchemy nor by natural magic, but by “necromantic charms." In both sources, when the magical creation finally speaks, Bacon is fast asleep and misses its words—“Time is,” “Time was,” and “Time is past.” The opportunity to question his creation about the secrets of the universe is gone, and the head explodes, destroying itself.

Never mind that Bacon was an expert in geometry and mathematics and one of the pioneers of the scientific method; rumors that he had built a brazen head “by the hand of the Devil” persisted well into 17th century. The extent of Bacon's magical doings during his lifetime is a subject of much debate, but his association with the demonic may come in part from his experiments in optics, which resulted in impressive tricks of perspective judged to have been done “by power of evyll spirites,” in the words of the 16th century mathematician Robert Recorde. And while there is no record of Bacon ever creating an actual brazen head, he was fascinated by early astronomical clocks—also made of brass, and also offering information about the cosmos.

Oil painting of Roger Bacon in his observatory by Ernest Board
Ernest Board, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 4.0

Bacon was a disciple of bishop Robert Grosseteste, another polymath alleged by literary legend to have made a brazen head, in his case by using “astral science” with the purpose of predicting the future. There are many similarities between the stories—particularly the fact that Grosseteste was also asleep when the brazen head delivered its cryptic words—so it’s likely that the two tales may have influenced one another over the years. And like Bacon, Grosseteste wasn’t exactly a sorcerer: Centuries after his death, he remains an influential figure in mathematical physics, still remembered as a crucial name in the development of Oxford University, where he lectured.

Even a saint was said to have made a brazen head. Renaissance sources tell us that 13th century Saint Albertus Magnus spent 30 years building a man of brass able to correctly answer any question, but according to one version of the story, the automaton was so loquacious that a disciple of Saint Albertus—the famed Thomas Aquinas—knocked it to pieces to stop its constant chattering.

Yet the earliest known written reference to something like a brazen head predates the Renaissance, and appears in the 12th century Chronicle of the Kings of England by William of Malmesbury. The historian attributes the creation of this head to Gerbert of Aurillac, who would become Pope Sylvester II in 999. We’re told that Gerbert traveled to Spain to “learn astrology and other sciences of that description from the Saracens,” and that he stole a book of spells from a Saracen philosopher before making a pact with the devil, who was responsible for his rise to the papal throne. “By a certain inspection of stars,” Gerbert built a head that accurately answered “yes” or “no” to any question—including one about its creator’s death. (Gerbert may have been clever enough to create an omniscient figure, but he failed to ask it the right questions: Told that he would only die after singing mass in Jerusalem, death nevertheless caught him by surprise days after having sung mass not in the city of Jerusalem, but in Jerusalem Church in Rome.)

William’s account is key to how the legend of the brazen head was received and interpreted. As a Christian monk, he regarded Islam as unholy. When Gerbert meddled with Saracens (a term medieval Europeans commonly used for Arabs and later Muslims) he was understood to have opened a door to the occult, introducing a “demonic” object to the Western world. William also perhaps strengthened the connection to paganism in the text by mentioning Daedalus, the cunning craftsman of Greek mythology, who fathered Icarus—and an impressive number of ancient automata.

INGENIOUS DEVICES

There was, indeed, some truth behind these stories. Ancient automata were not a mere mythical creation, but a real product of the inventiveness of some very early engineers. In the 4th century BCE, Archytas of Tarentum created a steam or compressed-air-powered dove; 3rd century BCE Philon of Byzantium designed a wine-pouring maid; and 1st century CE Hero of Alexandria produced a series of mechanical devices that included coin-operated machines, puppets, singing birds, and even a miniature theater able to stage a tragedy. This Greco-Alexandrian tradition was carried forward by Arab-Islamic engineers, such as the Banū Mūsā brothers in 9th century Baghdad, whose Book of Ingenious Devices contains designs for several different automata.

If many Christians regarded these inventions as devilry, it wasn’t just for their seemingly unnatural qualities, but also for their pagan origins.

Back in early modern England, Protestants used the brazen head motif for their own political purposes. In Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, Bacon—who like Gerbert, Grosseteste, and Albertus Magnus was an intellectual working on advanced ideas of philosophy and nature—is presented as a necromancer. The influential play is an example of Reformation propaganda: The Middle Ages are depicted as a breeding ground for magic and the occult, and Catholics are portrayed as credulous and superstitious, as opposed to Protestants, who are praised as advocates of progress.

MAGICAL RELICS

A wizard at Musée Mécanique, San Francisco
Musée Mécanique, San Francisco
Allison Meier, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The fascination with fortune-telling heads didn’t end with the Renaissance, however. Centuries later, the legend of Bacon’s brazen head still breathed in the works of Daniel Defoe, Lord Byron, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. In A Journal of the Plague Year (1722), Defoe describes how brazen heads were “the usual sign” that marked the dwellings of fortune-tellers and astrologers in 1665 London. What may have been false advertising in the 17th century became reasonably accurate in the penny arcades of the 20th century, where the fortune-telling business was actually performed by machines.

Many of these more recent fortune-telling creations still trade on tropes of the exotic—elderly gypsy women, Central European magicians, or Eastern mystics. While such automata are increasingly rare, several now live in museums, such as the Musée Mécanique in San Francisco or the Tibidabo Automata Museum in Barcelona. Although not the brazen heads of legend, they’re still functioning, ready to tell us our future—as long as we don't fall asleep.

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A woodblock illustration from Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock
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Retrobituaries
Madam C.J. Walker, the First Self-Made Female Millionaire in the U.S.
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock
Photo Illustration by Lucy Quintanilla. Badge: Gift of Dr. Patricia Heaston; Tin: Gift from Dawn Simon Spears and Alvin Spears, Sr.; Sign, Photograph of Walker Agents: Gift of A’Lelia Bundles / Madam Walker Family Archives. All from the Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Background/photo border, iStock

Like many fortunes, Madam C.J. Walker’s started with a dream. As she later explained to a newspaper reporter, Walker was earning barely a dollar a day as a washerwoman when she had a dream about a man who told her how to create a hair-growing tonic. When she awoke, Walker sent away for the ingredients, investing $1.25 in what she eventually dubbed “Madam Walker’s Wonderful Hair Grower.” The venture would propel her to become one of America’s first black female entrepreneurs—and reportedly the first self-made female millionaire in the nation.

Born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 to freed slaves on a plantation in Delta, Louisiana, the woman who would become known as Madam C.J. Walker was orphaned by age 7 and married by 14. The couple had one child, Lelia (later known as A’Lelia), but six years into the marriage, Walker’s husband died, by some accounts in a race riot. Walker then worked washing clothes while dreaming of building a better life for her daughter. “As I bent over the washboard and looked at my arms buried in soapsuds,” she later told The New York Times, “I said to myself: ‘What are you going to do when you grow old and your back gets stiff? Who is going to take care of your little girl?’”

By 1903, Walker had relocated to St. Louis and started to work for an African-American hair care company before then moving to Denver, where she had heard that the dry air exacerbated hair and scalp issues. At the time, such complaints were widespread among African-Americans, in part due to a lack of black-focused products and access to indoor plumbing. By the early 1900s, Walker herself had lost much of her hair.

Then came her dream. “[I] put it on my scalp,” she later said of the tonic, “and in a few weeks my hair was coming in faster than it had ever fallen out.”

In 1905, Walker began selling her solution door-to-door and at church events. She took the product on tour, traveling throughout the South and Northeast and recruiting other door-to-door saleswomen. A year later, she married Charles Joseph Walker and established the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, and in 1908 founded Lelia College in Pittsburgh, a beauty parlor and school for training Madam Walker brand ambassadors. Two years later, she relocated her business headquarters to Indianapolis—then a commercial hub—where she and a mostly female cadre of top executives produced Wonderful Hair Grower on an industrial scale.

A’Lelia, however, was not content with the Midwestern milieu. In 1913 she convinced her mother to open an office in New York and decamped to Manhattan, acquiring a stately Harlem townhouse designed by Vertner Tandy, the first registered black architect in the state. The home, later nicknamed the Dark Tower after poet Countee Cullen’s “From the Dark Tower,” included a Lelia College outpost on the first floor and living and entertaining spaces on the top three. A’Lelia frequently threw lavish parties there, attended by Harlem Renaissance luminaries such as Zora Neale Hurston, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Langston Hughes.

Walker followed A’Lelia north, where she purchased the adjacent townhouse. Soon, she was a cultural mover and shaker in her own right, joining the NAACP’s New York chapter and helping to orchestrate the Silent Protest Parade in 1917, when roughly 10,000 African-Americans marched down Fifth Avenue as a demonstration against the East St. Louis race riots earlier that year, in which dozens of African-Americans had been killed.

“She became politically active and very much an advocate of women’s economic independence,” Walker’s great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles, a journalist and biographer, tells Mental Floss. “She used her national platform to advocate for civil rights.”

The same year as the Silent Protest, Walker and a handful of Harlem leaders traveled to the White House to petition for anti-lynching legislation, and donated $5000 to the NAACP’s Anti-Lynching Fund—the largest single gift ever recorded by the fund. In 1916, she established the Madam C. J. Walker Benevolent Association, a program that encouraged Walker brand ambassadors to engage in charity work and hygiene education outreach.

As her empire grew, Walker continued to monumentalize her success. In 1916, she bought a four-acre parcel of land in Irvington, New York, and enlisted Tandy to design her a home to rival the nearby estates of Jay Gould and John D. Rockefeller. Her determination only swelled in the face of realtors who tried to charge her twice the price of the land to discourage her, and incredulous neighbors who reportedly mistook the hair care baroness for a maid when she arrived at the property in her Ford Model T.

Villa Lewaro
Villa Lewaro
Library of Congress, Flickr // No known copyright restrictions

Like her Manhattan residence, the mansion became a popular hang-out for the writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Walker also used the home to give back. “She made a blanket invitation to the returning African American soldiers [from World War I] to please come visit the home,” Bundles says. It also served as a kind of early safe space for A’Lelia and her largely LGBTQ social network.

But almost as soon as the home was complete, Madam Walker’s health began to crumble. Though she was diagnosed with high blood pressure and kidney problems, Walker continued to work and roll out new products. “Like most entrepreneurs she couldn’t figure out how to slow down,” Bundles says. “She needed to rest, but she couldn’t really make herself.”

In the spring of 1919, while on a business trip to St. Louis to unveil five new formulas, Walker fell gravely ill and was shuttled back to Irvington in a private car. That May, she died of kidney failure at the age of 51.

Yet her influence would live on. At the time of her death, an estimated 40,000 black women had been trained as Walker saleswomen. In 1927 the Madame Walker Theatre Center opened in Indianapolis, housing offices, a manufacturing center, and a theatre. Her name on the building reflected her unprecedented imprint on black entrepreneurship.

Madam Walker items at the Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
Madam Walker items at the Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas
FA2010, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Madam C.J. Walker brand also survived. In fact, it’s recently been revitalized, after black-owned hair care company Sundial acquired it in 2016, debuting two dozen new formulas exclusively at Sephora last spring. “It’s very glam,” says Bundles, who serves as the line’s historical consultant. In a historic deal in November 2017, consumer goods conglomerate Unilever acquired Sundial’s $240 million portfolio, and as part of the agreement designated $50 million to empower businesses led by women of color.

Walker’s house, known as Villa Lewaro, has had a rockier afterlife, having been owned by the NAACP and then used as an assisted living center for decades. In 1993, stock broker and U.S. ambassador Harold Doley and his wife Helena purchased the property, committing to a years-long restoration process. They’ve recently secured a protective easement for the site, which prevents future buyers from altering the appearance of the home—a means of preserving the house’s history, and that of Madam Walker.

Walker’s legacy is also likely to gain a new round of admirers with the recently announced Octavia Spencer-fronted television show about her life, which is based on a biography by Bundles and is allegedly courting distribution by Netflix.

With her brand in full swing and her life story about to be immortalized on the small screen, it seems that even in death, Madam Walker’s dream lives on.

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A woodblock illustration from Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay
Hulton Archive//Getty Images
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Newly Discovered 350-Year-Old Graffiti Shows Sir Isaac Newton's Obsession With Motion Started Early
Hulton Archive//Getty Images
Hulton Archive//Getty Images

Long before he gained fame as a mathematician and scientist, Sir Isaac Newton was a young artist who lacked a proper canvas. Now, a 350-year-old sketch on a wall, discovered at Newton’s childhood home in England, is shedding new light on the budding genius and his early fascination with motion, according to Live Science.

While surveying Woolsthorpe Manor, the Lincolnshire home where Newton was born and conducted many of his most famous experiments, conservators discovered a tiny etching of a windmill next to a fireplace in the downstairs hall. It’s believed that Newton made the drawing as a boy, and may have been inspired by the building of a nearby mill.

A windmill sketch, believed to have been made by a young Sir Isaac Newton at his childhood home in Lincolnshire, England.
A windmill sketch, believed to have been made by a young Sir Isaac Newton at his childhood home in Lincolnshire, England.
National Trust

Newton was born at Woolsthorpe Manor in 1642, and he returned for two years after a bubonic plague outbreak forced Cambridge University, where he was studying mechanical philosophy, to close temporarily in 1665. It was in this rural setting that Newton conducted his prism experiments with white light, worked on his theory of “fluxions,” or calculus, and famously watched an apple fall from a tree, a singular moment that’s said to have led to his theory of gravity.

Paper was a scarce commodity in 17th century England, so Newton often sketched and scrawled notes on the manor’s walls and ceilings. While removing old wallpaper in the 1920s and '30s, tenants discovered several sketches that may have been made by the scientist. But the windmill sketch remained undetected for centuries, until conservators used a light imaging technique called Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) to survey the manor’s walls.

Conservators using light technology to survey the walls of Woolsthorpe Manor,  the childhood home of Sir Isaac Newton.
A conservator uses light technology to survey the walls of Woolsthorpe Manor, the childhood home of Sir Isaac Newton.
National Trust

RTI uses various light conditions to highlight shapes and colors that aren’t immediately visible to the naked eye. “It’s amazing to be using light, which Newton understood better than anyone before him, to discover more about his time at Woolsthorpe,” conservator Chris Pickup said in a press release.

The windmill sketch suggests that young Newton “was fascinated by mechanical objects and the forces that made them work,” added Jim Grevatte, a program manager at Woolsthorpe Manor. “Paper was expensive, and the walls of the house would have been repainted regularly, so using them as a sketchpad as he explored the world around him would have made sense," he said.

The newly discovered graffiti might be one of many hidden sketches drawn by Newton, so conservators plan to use thermal imaging to detect miniscule variations in the thickness of wall plaster and paint. This technique could reveal even more mini-drawings.

[h/t Live Science]

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