Station Two: Works of Wilkins

John Wilkins

Mercury, or the Secret and Swift messenger, shewing how a man may with privacy and speed
communicate his thoughts to a friend at any distance
(1641)


scroll down for caption
 An Essay open at the title page

Click here to see a flat image of these pages
 

Meanwhile Wilkins was preparing his third work, which appeared in 1641. This was Mercury, or the Secret and Swift Messenger, a manual 'shewing how a man may with privacy and speed communicate his thoughts to a friend at any distance'. This was a less sensitive subject than Galilean astronomy, and Wilkins did sign this book, dedicating it to his employer George, Lord Berkeley, incidentally also the dedicatee of Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy. This book was in part again inspired by Godwin's work, which had featured a system of communication at a distance by smoke and fire signals. Godwin had also published a more mysterious Latin tract on signaling, the Nuncius Inanimatus of 1629, and Wilkins opened his own manual by confiding that Godwin's 'little Pamphlet' 'first occasioned this Discourse'. Nevertheless, where Godwin teased with obscurity, Wilkins instructed with clarity. Studded with woodcut figures for all kinds of cryptographic contrivance, Wilkins's readable compendium covered every kind of concealing or encrypting strategy Wilkins was able to dredge up from sources ancient and modern. He even cracked a witty code he had encountered in Godwin's lunar fable: the inhabitants of the moon, so Godwin's flying Spaniard reported, communicate in music, and Godwin's text reproduced in stave notation some of this alien 'language'. Wilkins reproduced the same examples, showing that it was really a simple alphabetic cipher based on pitch and length. The code thus cracked, the lunar folk are revealed, rather improbably, to 'speak' in Latin.