Spanish Alchemist and Scholar
Ramon Llull, also known as Raymond Lully, was a quintessential medieval figure: passionate in faith and love, eager to tilt at windmills, a believer in alchemy and its attendant mysticism. Yet from the landscape of Llull's mind, shadowed as it was by superstition and extra-scientific lore, emerged the conceptual prototype for the most modern of all machines. Nearly seven centuries before Alan Mathison Turing (1912-1954) proposed his "Turing machine," helping to usher in the computer age, Llull suggested the idea of a machine that could generate objective truths.
Born on the island of Majorca, Llull was the son of a Spanish knight who had received an estate from John I of Aragon. The teenaged Llull was given the title "Seneschal of the Isles," but he soon fell into disrepute for his licentious behavior. Among the many women he romanced was Eleonora de Castello, who was married, and when she was stricken with cancer he came to believe that this was a judgment from God. He therefore set aside his old ways and took holy orders, though it appears he did not become a priest; rather, he remained a layman, with a wife and children.
As ardent in the church as he had been in the pursuit of Majorca's ladies, Llull soon conceived a plan of going to North Africa as a missionary to convert the Muslims. He left Genoa for Tunis in 1291. This was also the year when the last crusader stronghold at Acre in Palestine fell, marking an end to the numbered crusades in the Holy Land. Crusading fervor had been dying for a long time, however, and this perhaps explains why the pope had refused to support Llull's mission, despite entreaties from the Spanish would-be missionary.
Undaunted, Llull went on his own to Tunis, but was forced to leave, and spent time in Paris, Naples, and Pisa, preaching to raise support for his next missionary trip. In Algiers in 1308 he encountered more success, winning many converts, but this so outraged the city's Muslim majority that they ran him out of town. He fled to Tunis, where he was recognized from his previous visit and promptly thrown in prison. He spent some time in prison, continuing to preach the gospel, before a group of Genoese merchants obtained his release. Upon his return to Europe, Llull again went to the pope for help, and was again refused. (By then the papacy was far more concerned with intra-European affairs than with converting the Muslims: in 1309, the papal seat had been moved from Rome to Avignon in France, sparking a conflict that would nearly tear the Catholic Church apart in the centuries that followed.)
Once again failing to obtain papal support, Llull rested for a time in Majorca before journeying to Tunis. He had only begun to preach there when an angry mob attacked and beat him, leaving him for dead on a beach. Again a group of Genoese sailors rescued him, and put him on board a ship bound for Majorca. His wounds failed to heal, however, and he died within sight of his home on June 30, 1315.
In his lifetime, Llull gained a legendary reputation as an alchemist. It was reputed, for instance, that he had created a large sum of gold for the king of England. He also left behind numerous works on alchemy and other shadowy scientific or pseudo-scientific pursuits, among them Alchimia magic naturalis, De aquis super accurtationes, De conservatione vitoe, and Ars magna.
The last of these contained a set of discussions significant to modern-day computer science. As a devoted cabalist, one who studied the Jewish scriptures with the idea that the writings hid a deeper meaning encoded in the letters of the text itself, Llull was fascinated with developing a mechanism for discerning hidden knowledge. In the future it might be possible, he suggested, to construct a machine that would generate ideas and then prove or disprove them. The Ars magna contains an illustration of a wheel designed to be rotated as a means of generating and testing new concepts, and Llull even created a rotating set of concentric rings in an attempt to make his truth-generating machine a physical reality.
He developed this astonishingly forward-looking concept in service to a purpose that fueled much of his career. If it were possible to mechanize the process of objective truth-seeking, Llull believed, then all observers would be forced to accept the conclusions generated by the machine—conclusions which, he was confident, would prove the superiority of the Christian God over Allah. Among Llull's many admirers in subsequent centuries was the mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz (1646-1716).