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A Brilliant Compendium of Mysteries and Artefacts From the 17th Century


The Mysteries of Nature and Art nearly disappeared from history but now it comes back to show us the most artisanal and lucid of imaginations.


In the nature of a book we can learn to decipher the world. This is the postulate of the outstanding Scottish collector John Ferguson, who was a professor of Chemistry at the University of Glasgow from 1874 to 1915. It is thanks to him, who collected books on the history of inventions, books of “secrets” and alchemy, that we have at hand’s reach this singular instructive to create different devices using the elements of nature. The Mysteries of Nature and Art, written in the 17th century, opens with the following apology:

Courteous reader, this ensuing treatise hath lien by me a long time, penned, but in a confused and undigested manner, as I gathered it, practiced, or found it out by industry and experience.

The almost childish enthusiasm and gentleness of John Bate, the author, provides us with elements to inquire into his devices carefully from the very beginning; the descriptions are refreshingly simple and straightforward. Based on empirical experience, each one of the treaties in this compendium, which are categorized as water-works, fireworks, art and medicinal secrets, represents an artisanal treat from the purest of scientific imaginations.


Some of the techniques that exist in Bates’ book of mysteries have made us ponder at least once: “who came up with this?” His book is full of wonderful devices that range from a water-bomb that carries the precious liquid into cities or a water-mill, to fireworks of different forms, or how to illuminate a river from beneath the water. His experiments are part of a remix of pre-existing formulas and part pure imagination applied to nature and art.

Although his book was written to a greater extent as a technical service for the community, within his medley are numerous inventions that are more delightful than scientific. It was so that Bates designed an ice-cube that melts in fire but does not dissolve in water, and instructions on how to inebriate a bird in order to hold it in our hands.


Nothing is known of the author other than the engraving of his face within the book, but we can rely on Ferguson’s recommendation of the book as “a book of genuine recipes”, and after trialing some of the experiments, a book of truths.

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