Article ID: CBB510816285

How to Send a Secret Message from Rome to Paris in the Early Modern Period: Telegraphy between Magnetism, Sympathy, and Charlatanry (2022)


In 1558, the famous natural magician Giambattista della Porta was the first to allude to a method of transmitting secret messages by using manipulated magnetic compasses. Soon thereafter, this idea, known in modern historiography as ‘magnetic telegraphy’, was spelled out and advertised by many early modern scholars as a promising technology of communication by action at a distance. In 1609, Daniel Schwenter created the most sophisticated design for the fulfillment of this potential: two compass needles were to be magnetized in a highly codified procedure to establish a sympathetic bond between them. Used in a compass circumscribed by an alphabet, one needle would turn to a certain letter whenever the other needle was moved to that same letter. Through ‘sympathy’, it was thought that this could made to occur even over a distance of many miles. The idea’s first critic, the Jesuit, Leonardo Garzoni, was quick to dismiss it as charlatanry, and many later authors argued that the device could not work as there was no such ‘sympathy’ or magnetism between the two devices. Though only a fanciful pipe dream of natural magic, this pseudo-technology of a magnetic telegraph yet testifies to the imagination of early modern scholars in having prefigured the modern reality of instantaneous global communication.

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Article Rodolfo Garau; Doina-Cristina Rusu (2022) Action at a Distance in Pre-Newtonian Natural Philosophy: An Introduction. Early Science and Medicine: A Journal for the Study of Science, Technology and Medicine in the Pre-modern Period (pp. 397-402). unapi

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Authors & Contributors
Rusu, Doina-Cristina
Saito, Fumikazu
Ugaglia, Monica
Clementina Gily Reda
Verardi, Donato
Bianchi, Lorenzo
Circumscribere: International Journal for the History of Science
Early Science and Medicine: A Journal for the Study of Science, Technology and Medicine in the Pre-modern Period
Studi dellaportiani
Annals of Science: The History of Science and Technology
Bruniana & Campanelliana: Ricerche Filosofiche e Materiali Storico-testuali
Centaurus: International Magazine of the History of Mathematics, Science, and Technology
Cambridge University Press
Firenze University Press
Franco Angeli
Johns Hopkins University
Leo S. Olschki
Natural magic
Occult sciences
Electricity; magnetism
Della Porta, Giovan Battista
Bacon, Francis, 1st Baron Verulam
Bruno, Giordano
Campanella, Tommaso
Galilei, Galileo
Garzoni, Gilbert Leonardo
Time Periods
16th century
17th century
15th century
18th century
Naples (Italy)
Rome (Italy)
Florence (Italy)
Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei (Rome)
Jesuits (Society of Jesus)

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