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.

6 Protective Mask Bundles You Can Get On Sale

pinkomelet/iStock via Getty Images Plus
pinkomelet/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Daily life has changed immeasurably since the onset of COVID-19, and one of the ways people have had to adjust is by wearing protective masks out in public places, including in parks and supermarkets. These are an essential part of fighting the spread of the virus, and there are plenty of options for you depending on what you need, whether your situation calls for disposable masks to run quick errands or the more long-lasting KN95 model if you're going to work. Check out some options you can pick up on sale right now.

1. Cotton Face Masks; $20 for 4

Protective Masks with Patterns.
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This four-pack of washable cotton face masks comes in tie-dye, kids patterns, and even a series of mustache patterns, so you can do your part to mask germs without also covering your personality.

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You’ve likely heard about the N95 face mask and its important role in keeping frontline workers safe. Now, you can get a similar model for yourself. The KN95 has a dual particle layer, which can protect you from 99 percent of particles in the air and those around you from 70 percent of the particles you exhale. Nose clips and ear straps provide security and comfort, giving you some much-needed peace of mind.

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These three-ply, non-medical, non-woven face masks provide a moisture-proof layer against your face with strong filtering to keep you and everyone around you safe. The middle layer filters non-oily particles in the air and the outer layer works to block visible objects, like droplets.

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4. Disposable masks; $44 for 50

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If the thought of reusing the same mask from one outing to the next makes you feel uneasy, there’s a disposable option that doesn’t compromise quality; in fact, it uses the same three-layered and non-woven protection as other masks to keep you safe from airborne particles. Each mask in this pack of 50 can be worn safely for up to 10 hours. Once you're done, safely dispose of it and start your next outing with a new one.

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5. Polyester Masks; $22 for 5

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These masks are a blend of 95 percent polyester and 5 percent spandex, and they work to block particles from spreading in the air. And because they're easily compressed, they can travel with you in your bag or pocket, whether you're going to work or out to the store.

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6. Mask Protector Cases; $15 for 3

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You're going to need to have a stash of masks on hand for the foreseeable future, so it's a good idea to protect the ones you’ve got. This face mask protector case is waterproof and dust-proof to preserve your mask as long as possible.

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29 Prescient Quotes About the Internet from 1996

Many of the predictions made about the internet in 1996 were wildly accurate—and also quite funny.
Many of the predictions made about the internet in 1996 were wildly accurate—and also quite funny.
Evan Agostini/Liaison/Getty Images Plus

In 1996, the Web was young, but it was hot, and everyone was trying to figure out what it meant. While a lot has changed since then, here are 29 quotes from 1996 that were truly prescient.

1. On the future of America Online

“Ten years from now, America Online will have gone the way of the water-bed store,” Bruce R. Burningham wrote in a letter to the editor published in the January 14, 1996 issue of The New York Times.

2. On Microsoft’s Internet Explorer web browser

According to the September 16, 1996 issue of TIME, “It’s the browser your mom will use.”

3. On email

“Email is boring but good. Like pencils, it just works,” Tom Jennings told WIRED in April 1996.

4. A comparison to the past

In September 1996, Jim Barksdale, then the CEO of Netscape Communications Corporation, said that “the Internet is the printing press of the technology era.”

5. Cybersex vs. Bird-Watching

When a reader wrote to Ann Landers in June 1996 to emphasize the benefits of the internet—which the reader said they used for graduate research, as well as to attend bird-watching meetings and support groups—Landers responded, “Thanks for accentuating the positive, but I'm afraid more people are interested in cybersex than bird-watching.”

6. On dating online

In a February 1996 article in USA Today, Leslie Miller interviewed Judith A. Broadhurst, author of The Woman's Guide to Online Services. Broadhurst told Miller, “For better or worse, one of the most popular ways to look for a mate in the '90s is on-line … I heard from so many women who met their husbands on-line ... that I began to wonder if anyone meets in any other way anymore.”

7. On catfishing before catfishing was a thing

When one reader asked Dear Abby if he should pay for his (married!) online paramour from Australia to visit him in Michigan, she responded in a July 1996 column that, “It sounds like asking for trouble to me. Aside from the fact that you are carrying on with a married woman, Kate may not be what you expect. I recently heard about a teen who was communicating online with a female he thought was about his age; when they met, he found out she was a 76-year-old granny!”

8. On being addicted to the internet (a.k.a. “Netaholism”)

“Dr. [Kimberly S.] Young said that if alcoholism is any guide to Netaholism, between 2 percent and 5 percent of the estimated 20 million Americans who go on line might be addicted,” Pam Belluck wrote in the December 1, 1996 issue of The New York Times.

9. College and internet addiction

According to a piece in the June 26, 1996 issue of the Chicago Tribune, “Universities are considered hot zones for potential Internet junkies because they often give students free and unlimited Net access.”

10. On losing access to your email

“Letting your e-mail address fall into the wrong hands isn’t exactly like having a maniacal stalker parked outside your front door,” the March 1996 issue of Spin noted. “But it’s close.”

11. On the potential of the internet

“These technologies are going to profoundly affect the way we perceive our humanity,” Anthony Rutkowski, “a de facto global spokesman for all things cyberspace,” told the Washington Post in February 1996. “We all have ideas to share and stories to tell and now we really can.”

12. On the ugliness of online behavior and content

“The people decrying the Net are using technology as a scapegoat for the fact that we haven’t, as a society, addressed these problems,” John Schwartz said in a November 1996 Washington Post article. “Yes, it’s a shame that there are pedophiles on the Internet. But the real horror is there are pedophiles in the real world and that pedophilia exists at all. ... Let’s face facts. To the extent that there’s a problem out there, it’s our society that’s sick—or at least, it has spawned a number of sick and broken people. The Internet, as the most personal medium ever developed, reflects that. I guess cartoonist Walt Kelly said it best: ‘We have met the enemy, and he is us.’”

13. On the internet’s “insidious seduction”

In the May/June 1996 issue of The American Prospect, Sidney Perkowitz wrote that “Aimless chat is the insidious seduction of the Internet; it can replace inward contemplation and real experience.”

14. On the internet in education

“The Internet has the potential to raise students’ sensitivity,” Diane Romm, one of the first librarians to use the internet, told The New York Times in June 1996. “Because it is international in its communication, people have to become more sensitive to the way what they say may be interpreted by people who come from different cultural backgrounds.”

15. On the virtual experience

“People can get lost in virtual worlds. Some are tempted to think of life in cyberspace as insignificant, as escape or meaningless diversion. It is not,” Sherry Turkle wrote in WIRED’s January 1996 issue. “Our experiences there are serious play. We belittle them at our risk. We must understand the dynamics of virtual experience both to foresee who might be in danger and to put these experiences to best use. Without a deep understanding of the many selves that we express in the virtual, we cannot use our experiences there to enrich the real. If we cultivate our awareness of what stands behind our screen personae, we are more likely to succeed in using virtual experience for personal transformation.”

16. On trying to get people to pay for content online

“There's so much free content [online], it's going to be extremely hard to get people to pay,” Marc Andreessen told USA Today in February 1996.

17. On the decline of print

“I can imagine a not-so distant future when a sizable fraction of professional writers won't ever enter the world of print but will go directly from school to digital publishing,” Paul Roberts said in the July 1996 issue of Harper’s. “Maybe they'll be constrained at first by the needs of older readers who were raised on print and who have only recently and partially and timidly converted to the nonlinear faith. But in time, this will change, as printing comes to be seen as too expensive and cumbersome, as computers become more powerful and more interlinked, and as they show up in every classroom and office, in every living room and den.”

18. On distinguishing between content and ads on the internet

“Sometimes, surfing along on the World Wide Web, you can cross the line from content to advertisement without even knowing it,” Sally Chew wrote in New York Magazine in May 1996.

19. On the internet amplifying individual voices

“The Internet has become the ultimate narrowcasting vehicle: everyone from UFO buffs to New York Yankee fans has a Website (or dozen) to call his own—a dot-com in every pot. Technology will only quicken the pace at which news is moving away from the universal and toward the individualized,” Richard Zoglin said in the October 21, 1996 issue of TIME.

20. World peace versus loss of privacy

“The Web is a crazy quilt of both utopian and Orwellian possibilities,” Elizabeth Corcoran wrote in the Washington Post in June 1996. “Its fans make wide-eyed predictions of world peace and democracy even as privacy advocates say that it will destroy the notion of confidentiality in our home lives.”

21. On internet decryption

“As for encryption, the Government keeps trying to do what governments naturally do: control people. They would like to ban encryption [which scrambles and unscrambles information on computers] to make it easier for law enforcement to listen in on people,” Esther Dyson told The New York Times on July 7, 1996. “In principle, all they want to do is stop crime. But the fact is that encryption is defensive technology against big government, big business, big crime. I’d rather have defensive technology than leave the power to snoop in the hands of people I might not trust.”

22. On Corporate America exploiting the internet

“Technolibertarians rightfully worry about Big Bad Government, yet think commerce unfettered can create all things bright and beautiful—and so they disregard the real invader of privacy: Corporate America seeking ever-better ways to exploit the Net, to sell databases of consumer purchases and preferences, to track potential customers however it can,” Paulina Borsook said in the July/August 1996 issue of Mother Jones.

23. On interacting on the internet

“I think the importance of interactivity in online media can’t be overstated,” Carl Steadman, co-founder of early web magazine Suck—“an irreverent online daily”—told TIME in October 1996. “When I can cheerfully scroll past the cyberpundit of the moment’s latest exposé to the discussion area that features the opinions of true experts like myself and my hometown’s own Joe Bob, I’ll feel I’ve finally broken free.”

24. On using the internet for piracy

“As the Internet’s capacity for data transmission increases and multimedia technology improves, it will become as easy to copy music, photos and movies as it is to copy text now,” Steven D. Lavine wrote to The New York Times in March 1996. “How can government hope to prevent copyright infringement without encroaching upon individual privacy rights? It cannot. Content providers must accept the loss of those customers willing to pirate content and concentrate on packaging their products with enough value added so that wealthier customers remain willing to pay.”

25. On CD-ROMs

“CD-ROMs have become so popular that virtually all new desktop computers are shipped with the ability to use them. But by the turn of the century, CD-ROMs could themselves become unused relics, just like those old 5¼-inch floppies,” William Casey wrote in the July 22, 1996 issue of the Washington Post. “And why? The big ol’ Internet, as you might expect.”

26. On an extremely connected world

“Just wait, says Microsoft chief technologist Nathan Myhrvold. Even your hot-water heater will become computerized and hooked to the Net,” Kevin Maney wrote in USA Today in November 1996. Myhrvold told Maney, “Anything that can be networked will be networked.”

27. On communicating on the internet

“How many times have you received a message on paper and wished you could send quick reply back to the sender?” Frank Vizard wrote in Popular Science’s December 1996 issue. “Motorola’s new PageWriter two-way pager lets you do exactly that—no need to connect to a telephone or computer as previous two-way pagers have required. To send a message, all you do is unfold a miniature keyboard and type in your text. [...] Just how big demand for the device will be remains to be seen.”

28. On the growth of the internet

“The Internet as we know it now will be quaint,” Timothy Logue, “a space and telecommunications analyst with Coudert Brothers in Washington,” told Satellite Communications in September 1996. “The Citizen’s Band radio phase died out, and the Internet is kind of in that CB radio state. It will evolve and mature in a couple of ways. It’ll be a global electronic city, with slum areas and red light districts, but it’ll also have a central business district.”

29. On the internet changing the world

We’ll leave you with a quote from Bill Gates, made in the September 16, 1996 issue of TIME: “The Internet is a revolution in communications that will change the world significantly. The Internet opens a whole new way to communicate with your friends and find and share information of all types. Microsoft is betting that the Internet will continue to grow in popularity until it is as mainstream as the telephone is today.”