Hello my friends!

Aunt Æthel asked me to come up with an April Fool’s Day writing challenge for the A&S peoples of Æthelmearc. The challenge is as follows:

1) Find an image of something unusual from the SCA time period. One image only, please.

2) Write a short paper for the Gazette for April Fool’s Day: one or two pages or around 1000 words. Not about what the image actually is, but what you think it might be. This is for humor. Have “evidence” that a battle was won through the use of interpreted dance?  Have “details” about a cookbook for cannibals with recipes for Lent? Want to discuss the extinct species of killer oysters that once roamed Europe? Have “proof” that the Byzantine Empress Ariadne had her drunk husband, the Emperor Zeno, nailed into a sarcophagus and pretended that Zeno had died, even though everyone could hear him crying for help…. Wait, that actually happened. Save that one for a micro-research paper.

3) Please include the sub-title “Fake Research: Real Writing” so that we can sort out these challenges from the regular pieces submitted to the Gazette.

4) “Document” your claims in a professional fashion. Feel free to use as many “sources” or “footnotes” as needed. [1]

5) Please keep your writing family friendly, these will be read by anyone with access to the Æthelmearc Gazette. [2]

6) Leonardo da Vinci is off limits. Too many fake things are accredited to him; let us take the time to give bogus credit to other people from history. [3]

7) No aliens: The History Channel has that locked up and we don’t want to be sued for copyright infringement.

8) Even though this will be for fun and humor, please use the opportunity to practice your writing skills.

9) Submit your image and paper to the Gazette before April 1st. Aunt Æthel and I, and perhaps a few others, will read through all of the articles and pick a winner who will get the prize of bragging rights for the rest of the year. And I will have tokens for everyone who takes part.

Without further ado, here is my example of fake research: real writing:

Medieval Remote Controlled Ship
Fake Research: Real Writing.
by Caleb Reynolds

Take note of this image of the oldest, surviving, remote controlled vehicle. [4]

The oldest, surviving, remote controlled vehicle.

“This spice cellar, made to hold precious seasonings at the table, is of a typical northern European design. Major trade commodities in ancient and medieval times, salt and other spices were used both to preserve meat and to enhance the flavor of all types of food (often not very fresh). Some spices came from Asia and were very expensive. This whimsical container, in the form of a little ship on wheels, could be rolled from one guest to another.” [5]

This could have held salt in one half of the ship and ground pepper in the other half. This most likely was not made for major royalty; the details from the Museum do not list a maker or an original owner, but it appears to me that this spice cellar was not as valuable as some of the spices that it might have once held (the Museum does not indicate if any traces of spices were found in it during its two cleanings). The cellar is made of bronze and it is very nicely made, but it is not on the high end of such items that have survived. The interesting thing about this spice container, or nef, is not that it is a lovely bronze artifact that has survived several centuries, but that this is a battery operated, remote controlled “executive” toy.

What was once thought of as a third chamber to hold spices, has actually been identified as a battery compartment. The classification took years to make as the batteries required did not resemble modern batteries in shape or size. Electrical batteries can be, potentially, dated to the 2nd or 3rd century AD, with the discovery of the “Baghdad Battery” [6] It is theorized that this nef was designed, and perhaps built by, the legendary French architect and artist Villard de Honnecourt. [7] While this nef does not appear in the 33 surviving pages of his sketchbook, a percentage of the 250 some odd drawings do contain images of mechanical devices and automata, including the design of a perpetual-motion machine.

Unfortunately, the controller has not survived, [8] but we can assume that the nef was controlled by radio waves and not sound waves, due to the lack of visible microphones that would be needed to pick up the clicks and clacks of an audio controller. Such audio remotes were in use well into the 1970s when LED technology began to replace “clickers”. We can also assume that it does not function via Bluetooth as it is not Norse in design or construction. Since this object is a valuable piece of art, as well as of history, no attempt has been made to disassemble the nef to trace it’s circuitry. Furthermore, the device is too rare and delicate to attempt to power it up for fear that it would be permanently damaged. That, and the lack of the appropriate batteries, which we believe were last made in London in 1667, when the factory burned down due to a fire of unknown cause. [9]

While some may think that the idea of a medieval RC car might be in the realm of science fiction, please let me quote the writings of the 13th century Franciscan friar, Roger Bacon:

“Ships may be made to move without oars or rowers, so that large vessels may be driven on the sea or on a river by a single man, and more swiftly than if it were strongly manned. Chariots can be built which can move without any draft animal at incalculable speed… Flying machines might be made in which a man might sit, turning a certain mechanism whereby artfully built wings might beat the air, in the manner of a bird in flight. Another instrument could be made which, although small, will lift or lower weights of almost infinite greatness… Again, instruments might be made for walking in the sea, or in rivers, even to the very bottom… bridges might cross rivers without pier or prop.” [10]

While wholly mechanical devices are represented in greater numbers in museums, indeed there are dozens of examples of wind-up salt nefs from this same time period, and even more from the 16th century, [11] this is the oldest electric nef known to have survived. It is clear from the image that this is not a steam powered device: electricity would be the only, logical, method of propulsion, as there is no wind up mechanism present.

Some might say that this device could not have been remote controlled due to various reasons, i.e.: primitive medieval technology; lack of understanding of radio waves; the device predates Radio Shack; etc. Careful analysis of the nef, using non-destructive methods, have not revealed any controls on the device itself, [12] nor any holes or ports where a control cord could have once been connected to the internal mechanism. The nef is less than 6″ long, [13] far too small for a jacquard style controller. [14]

From a strictly engineering standpoint, it is clear that the remote control would only need a forward and back setting, much like a basic, toy train set, as the wheels of the nef do not turn left or right: the nef could only move forwards and back. Which, for a long high-table, would be most convenient: the host could drive the nef to a guest without the fear of steering it off of the edge of the table. Such a dining faux pas would be most embarrassing, and potentially dangerous as the spilled salt would be too far away to reach before the traditional bad luck stabs one in the back.

While this nef might never be powered on again, we can always hope that other, similar, devices might be found in the basements of museums, complete with their batteries and controllers. Or, perhaps, with new digital X-ray technology, researchers might be able to map out the interior of the device, layer by layer, so that modern day artisans might be able to replicate it’s design.

[1] Please feel free to use as many “bunny ears” as you see fit.
[2] Potentially the entire planet.
[3] There are three other ninja turtles who get zero representation.
[4] Currently in the possession of The Walters Art Museum (54.2501) and dates to around 1400.
[5] Description from Walters Art Museum’s web page.
[6] Actually it was discovered in present-day Khujut Rabu, Iraq.
[7] Gimpel and Barnes, various pages describing what is known about his life and history.
[8] While no radio controllers from this time period have survived, the complete lack of surviving controllers cannot be used to state, equivocally, that they never existed in the first place.
[9] Bell, p170
[10] Mortimer, p77 and other sources.
[11] The 16th century “Mechanical Galleon” is one of the best examples of a clockwork nef, which could roll on wheels, tell the time, play music, and fire tiny cannons at boring dinner guests.
[12] Not even an obvious On/Off switch.
[13] H: 3 3/4 x L: 5 9/16 x D: 2 11/16 in. (9.5 x 14.13 x 6.84 cm) Walters.
[14] While the Jacquard loom is a 19th century invention, the technology that led to it can be traced to 16th century Bruges with their cam-driven carillon bell ringing mechanism. That carillon was inspired by translations of Hero of Alexandria. See Burke, ch. 4.

  • Æthel, Aunt. “How to Fake It Until You Make It.” Aunt Æthel’s Big Blog of Baloney. Created on February 31st, 1982.
  • “Back to List Salt Cellars: An Object Lesson July 20, 2015.” Shrubsole Salt Cellars An Object Lesson Comments.
  • Bell, Walter. “The Great Fire of London in 1666.” New York Bodley Head. 1923.
  • Barnes, Carl F., Jr. “Villard de Honnecourt–the artist and his drawings: a critical bibliography.” Boston, MA: G.K. Hall, 1982.
  • Burke, James. “Connections.” Riverside: Simon & Schuster, 1978.
  • Engber, Daniel. “Why Are Remote Controls so Terrible?” Slate Magazine, Slate, 27 June 2012.
  • Gimpel, Jean. “Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages.” New York. Penguin Books, 1977.
  • Haughton, Brian. “Hidden History: Lost Civilizations, Secret Knowledge, and Ancient Mysteries.” Red Wheel/Weiser. 2006.
  • Jones, Terry, and Alan Ereira. “Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives.” London: BBC, 2004.
  • Keyser, Paul T. “The Purpose of the Parthian Galvanic Cells: A First-Century A.D. Electric Battery Used for Analgesia” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, vol. 52, no. 2, pp. 81–98, April 1993.
  • Mortimer, Ian. “The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England: A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century.” New York: Touchstone, 2014.
  • Scott, David A. “Copper and Bronze in Art: Corrosion, Colorants, Conservation.” Getty Publications. pp. 16–18. 2002
  • “Spice Cellar in the Shape of a Ship.” The Walters Art Museum.
  • Tattersall, Ian; Nevraumont, Peter. “Hoax: A History of Deception : 5,000 Years of Fakes, Forgeries, and Fallacies.” New York. Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers. 2018