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The Occult Wonders of the Magnetic Telegraph

Does this seventeenth-century occult experiment for sending secret messages to someone far away using a loadstone and special compass really work?  Is sympathetic magic at work in the magnetic telegraph?   


After the conclusion of the central work on angelic magic, Ars Notoria: The Notory Art of Solomon, Shewing the Cabalistical Key of Magical Operations, The liberal Sciences, Divine Revelation, and The Art of Memory translated by the Englishman Robert Turner in 1657, there follows an unrelated magnetic experiment using a loadstone, a pair of needles, and a card on which are written the 24 letters of the alphabet for the purpose of secretly sending messages to someone over long distances.  The experiment instructs the user to magnetize two compass needles in a special procedure in order to make a sympathetic bond between them.  After this, the two individuals agree on when they will use their respective magentized needles and alphabet-compasses to communicate with one another over a great distance.  I have reproduced the passage here from pages 136-138:

 

"A certain Magnetick Experiment, how every Man or Woman may by the virtue of the Loadstone, and the use of this Chard, exactly discover their minds one to another, at any time night or day, be they never so far distant one from the other, in any parts of the World: the rarest secret in Nature, of the greatest use for all persons whatsoever.

 


The way to use this, is thus: let the form of a Needle be made of pure steel, as you see here in the Figure; such as are used in the sea-men’s Compasses; but of the double Magnitude, that it may be cut asunder into two pieces: after it is formed and fashioned, let it be very well toucht with the Loadstone, in the manner as other Needles are; and afterwards cut into two Needles of a like Magnitude; which being both together toucht again, let them be placed in two several boxes or Chards, as is used in Sun-Dialls, having the 24 Letters written round about, as you see in this Figure: Then the use thereof is, that by the Magnetick virtue of the Loadstone, as the one Needle moves, so will move the other, and rest where he rests; so that if one man were about to go into any far Country, having two of these thus made, one for himself, and the other for his friend at home, they may agree and appoint one another at what hours they will speak together, and acquaint one another with their conditions, by the one going to his Chard, and turning the Needle with his finger to every Letter, as they make the Words he would speak; and the other observing, the motions of his Needle will be the same, and rest still at the same place, or upon the head of the same Letter the other points to; which he may presently write down with a Pen and Ink by him, and there make a perfect Letter; and when the other rests, if he will, he may immediately answer the same turning, the Needle himself to what Letters he would write.


Laus mirabilia Deus & Natura fecerunt ad usum filiorum hominis."


(“God and Nature have made wonderful praise for the use of the sons of men.”)

 

In 1558, the Italian scholar Giovanni Battista della Porta (1535 – 1615) published his most famous book entitled Magia Naturalis (Natural Magic). Therein the seventh book called “Of the Wonders of the Load-stone” (pages 190-216) he alludes to the idea of such a magnetic experiment for transmitting secret messages but does not explain how it could be done.  A year later when della Porta republished his Magia Naturalis in an extended version, he describes the telegraphic compass surrounded by the letters of the alphabet but again does not explain its procedure.  In his unpublished Taumatologia (written between 1606 and 1615), della Porta describes his attempt to design the magnetic experiment for sympathetic communication.  He struggled to overcome the limited range of an ordinary magnet’s sphere of influence, desiring to infinitely increase its power, but he never did, and his work remained unfinished.     

 

In the German writer Daniel Schwenter’s Steganologia et Steganographia Nova (Aucta; 1618 and revised in 1622), Schwenter created the magnetic experiment which corresponds to the one described by Robert Turner about 35 years later.  Schwenter's experiment is shrouded in strange technical terms and although his revised work is less cryptic, it is no more complicated and difficult to understand.  For those interested, the contemporary scholar Christoph Sander explains Schwenter’s procedure.  However, it is probably the reading of della Porta's Magia Naturalis and the English occultist Robert Fludd’s 1623 De Anatomia (On Anatomy) from which Turner wrote his description of “a certain Magnetick Experiment”. Fludd essentially copied Schwenter’s work, making only slight modifications of his own.  Here is the illustration of the telegraphic compass and the magnetized iron with a wooden handle from Fludd’s De Anatomia (Frankfurt, 1623), 235:

 


In short, there was no magic that could overcome the physics of a magnet’s sphere of activity to allow for long distance communication.  The concept of sympathetic magic proved to be nothing but charlatanry and fanciful thinking.  Nevertheless, the idea of transmitting messages over long distances has been a long-time fascination in the Western esoteric tradition, most notably in the works of the German Benedictine abbot Johannes Trithemius (1462-1516) and the English astrologer and ceremonial magician John Dee (1527 – 1608 or 1609).    


For more information about the angelic magic book that Robert Turner translated, see my other blog entry entitled, “Agrippa’s Latin Edition of the Ars Notoria and Robert Turner’s 1657 English Translation Thereof.”

 

Bibliography


Turner, Robert. Ars Notoria: The Notory Art of Solomon, Shewing the Cabalistical Key of Magical Operations, The liberal Sciences, Divine Revelation, and The Art of Memory. London, Cottel, 1657.


Sander, Christoph. "How to Send a Secret Message from Rome to Paris in the Early Modern Period: Telegraphy between Magnetism, Sympathy, and Charlatanry", Early Science and Medicine 27, 5 (2022): 426-459, doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/15733823-20220056.

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