Bacon's Essays: Of Counsel

I’m expecting Of Counsel to be a goodie. Bacon was a counselor to two major monarchs, after all. He knew whereof he wrote.

“The greatest trust, between man and man, is the trust of giving counsel. For in other confidences, men commit the parts of life; their lands, their goods, their children, their credit, some particular affair; but to such as they make their counsellors, they commit the whole: by how much the more, they are obliged to all faith and integrity.”

These days the trust feels even more like a commitment. You give accountants, lawyers, and allied health professionals your social security number, after all. They could take it and run, if they wanted, or drop it on the sidewalk or in their unshredded trash.

Counselors, don’t stay for supper

Athena emerging from her father’s head

I’m going to include the whole long quote. Bacon loved to give classical myths modern interpretations. Here, he looks at the story of Jupiter (Zeus), who first married Metis, the Titan whose name means ‘skill’ or ‘craft.’ She got pregnant and he devoured her, babe and all. Then he became pregnant and delivered Athena, who burst fully armored from her father’s head.

Bacon takes this to mean that kings will get advice from their counselors, but then once the ideas have developed, they will take them into their own hands and present them as proceeding entirely from their own initiative.

Well, yeah, ok. I can see it.

“[T]hey say Jupiter did marry Metis, which signifieth counsel; whereby they intend that Sovereignty, is manied to Counsel: the other in that which followeth, which was thus: They say, after Jupiter was married to Metis, she conceived by him, and was with child, but Jupiter suffered her not to stay, till she brought forth, but eat her up; whereby he became himself with child, and was delivered of Pallas armed, out of his head. Which monstrous fable containeth a secret of empire; how kings are to make use of their counsel of state. That first, they ought to refer matters unto them, which is the first begetting, or impregnation; but when they are elaborate, moulded, and shaped in the womb of their counsel, and grow ripe, and ready to be brought forth, that then they suffer not their counsel, to go through with the resolution and direction, as if it depended on them; but take the matter back into their own hands, and make it appear to the world, that the decrees and final directions (which, because they come forth, with prudence and power, are resembled to Pallas armed) proceeded from themselves; and not only from their authority, but (the more to add reputation to themselves) from their head and device.”

The downside of counsel

Guess how many downsides? Three, you’re right! There are always three sub-heads with Francis Bacon. How many miles did he pace in the fields beyond Gray’s Inn sometimes, trying to come up with that third point to make his list complete? (Three, of course. That was easy.)

whispering“First, the revealing of affairs, whereby they become less secret. Secondly, the weakening of the authority of princes, as if they were less of themselves. Thirdly, the danger of being unfaithfully counselled, and more for the good of them that counsel, than of him that is counselled.”

“And as for cabinet counsels, it may be their motto, plenus rimarum sum (I am full of leaks): one futile person, that maketh it his glory to tell, will do more hurt than many, that know it their duty to conceal.”

Two can keep a secret if one of them is dead — Benjamin Franklin.

Bacon doesn’t worry much about the weakening of authority. He thinks good kings know better than to concern themselves on this score.

The last danger is greater: that your counselor will be working for himself, not you. But it’s not as easy as that sounds. You have more than one, we hope, and they keep an eye on each other. “Besides, counsellors are not commonly so united, but that one counsellor, keepeth sentinel over another; so that if any do counsel out of faction or private ends, it commonly comes to the king’s ear. But the best remedy is, if princes know their counsellors, as well as their counsellors know them: Principis est virtus maxima nosse suos (It is the greatest virtue of a prince to know his own.)

Don’t probe your patron’s personality

Canute reproving the flattery of his courtiers

“[C]ounsellors should not be too speculative into their sovereign’s person. The true composition of a counsellor, is rather to be skilful in their master’s business than in his nature; for then he is like to advise him, and not feed his humor.”

That’s key. You don’t want counselors who are trying to flatter you or play to your ego. Not if you want to be a good monarch, that is. And you really don’t want to be that kind of counselor either. You’ll only succeed if your master is a shallow ponce. Wouldn’t you rather work for wise King Canute than whimpering King John?

The practical Bacon

Bacon participated in every Parliament from 1581 to 1601. That means he sat in a lot of meetings. His advice about making meetings more productive still holds, as often as not. Here are some choice bits.

“The counsels at this day, in most places, are but familiar meetings, where matters are rather talked on, than debated. And they run too swift, to the order, or act, of counsel. It were better that in causes of weight, the matter were propounded one day, and not spoken to till the next day; in nocte consilium (advice comes over night.)”

“In choice of committees; for ripening business for the counsel, it is better to choose indifferent persons, than to make an indifferency, by putting in those, that are strong on both sides.” Good luck with that!

“I commend set days for petitions; for both it gives the suitors more certainty for their attendance, and it frees the meetings for matters of estate, that they may hoc agere.” (Hoc agere means to attend to our business.)

round-table“A long table and a square table, or seats about the walls, seem things of form, but are things of substance; for at a long table a few at the upper end, in effect, sway all the business; but in the other form, there is more use of the counsellors’ opinions, that sit lower.”

Surely a round table would be better still? Although you don’t find many of them, and they are hard to expand.


Victorian: Submersibles and flying machines

Jet lag today, home from England. So today we’ll look at more marvelous machines from the Victorian era, focusing on submersibles. Those Victorians were keen to get into the air and underwater!

Flying machines

This looks like it could work in the air or on the water. Versatile!
An energy-saving method. Works best with geese with a quality work ethic.
A great cardio workout with no impact. Good for people with bad knees!
I can’t tell how this one’s supposed to work. Looks like a one-seater.


Swimming aids

Two-for-one. This life-preserver looks like it would take some getting into. You couldn’t walk around the boat in it. But I do like that swimming device. They say water workouts are the best .This one lets people who hate to get wet enjoy those advantages.
And the surf boat rocks you gently to sleep.


Good night!


de Vries, Leonard. 1971. Victorian Inventions. New York: American Heritage Press.

The British Patent Office

When Sherlock Holmes first tells Watson about Professor Moriarty, “the Napoleon of crime,” he describes him as a gifted mathematician who once held a chair at a small university. But then “[d]ark rumours gathered round him in the University town, and eventually he was compelled to resign his chair and come down to London.”

And there begins my tale, Moriarty Meets His Match. After sorting out the dark rumors, my next problem was to find suitable employment for my erstwhile professor. Where could an educated gentlemen find honest work in 1886?

In Her Majesty’s Service

The Patent Office at noon

Two of the three clerks in Anthony Trollope’s novel worked in the Office of Weights and Measures; the other worked in Internal Navigation (rivers.) Trollope himself worked in the Post Office while writing his dozens of works. My novel revolved around hazardous and/or fraudulent inventions, so where better to situate my protagonist than the Patent Office?

Being me, it wasn’t enough to pick an institution and leave it at that. I had to look it up. Lo and behold, there’s a book about it in my library, supporting my strong belief that there’s a book about everything.

This office, now known as the Intellectual Property Office of the United Kingdom, was established by the Patents Law Amendment Act in 1852. The building stood on a narrow street in Holborn off Chancery Lane. It was described at the time as having a “gloomy facade with massive rusticated round-arched windows above a basement, with an upper floor behind a screen of Roman Doric columns. Entrance steps led to a narrow corridor lit by two cupolas and leading to the Quality Court frontage and the Bankruptcy and Lunacy offices.” Convenient, what?

Patents were booming by the late nineteenth century. The office had need of men like my James Moriarty. Six assistant examiners were appointed in the first quarter of 1884; eighteen more later in that year. Another eight in 1885 and eight more in 1886. These jobs were much sought after: there were 200 applicants for 42 vacancies in 1884-5. You had to pass a civil-service examination to be considered.

Assistant examiners, usually graduates of Oxford or Cambridge, specialized in certain subjects. Engineers complained about them, since most would have earned degrees in the liberal arts. They insisted on “scientifically trained examiners [who] were introduced to determine whether an invention was properly the subject matter of a patent, whether its nature and the way in which it was to be carried into effect were clearly described and whether the complete specification agreed with the provisional and comprised one invention only.”

Another crucial job of the examiners was prevengint the granting of patents for existing inventions. Sorry, Mack; that mousetrap has already been built!

Moriarty’s colleagues were real people who really worked there: Moses Jackson and the poet Alfred E. Housman. Housman’s work was checking new applications for trademarks against the registers and for conformity with the law. Apparently he was pretty good at it.

A brief history of patents

The OED’s first definition of the word ‘patent’ is the oldest one: “A document conferring some privilege, right, office, title, or property.” It could be for anything in the middle ages. By the Elizabethan times, Francis Bacon found three sorts: “Patents of Old Debts, Patents of Concealments, and Patents of Monopolies.” These were often monopolies of trade, like the right to import sweet wines or to transport iron into London.

James I, under whom Bacon was Lord Chancellor, went way overboard on the granting of monopolies. The public outcry became so loud, he was forced to revoke all his previous patents and thenceforward limit them to “projects of new invention.” The goal, then as now, was to stimulate invention by giving inventors a head start on potential rewards.

This modern definition comes straight from Wikipedia: “A patent is a set of exclusive rights granted by a sovereign state to an inventor or assignee for a limited period of time in exchange for detailed public disclosure of an invention. An invention is a solution to a specific technological problem and is a product or a process. Patents are a form of intellectual property.”

One thing leads to another

My sources don’t give numbers for the early centuries, but by 1865, some 3,000 patent applications were being filed per year. For comparison, in the US in 2015, 325,979 patents were granted out of  629,647 applications. (US Patent Office.)

Here’s a selected list of patents granted between 1837 and 1900, from Van Dulken’s book about Victorian Inventions. The sharp-eyed reader will note that pocket protectors were invented in 1857. Not according to the Wikipedia page for pocket protectors! There credit is given to Hurley Smith, an American, in 1947. Hmph.

There are other goodies. The square-bottomed paper bag, 1867. Lawn tennis, 1874. Vending machines, 1883. The Ouija board, 1890. The brassiere, 1893. Last, the radio, in 1900.



Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur. 1894. “The Final Problem,” The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. London: George Newnes, Ltd. p. 256-279.

Hewish, John. 2000. Rooms Near Chancery Lane: The Patent Office Under the Commissioners, 1852-1883. The British Library.

Spedding, James, ed. 1890. The Letters and the Life of Francis Bacon. Vol. VII. London: Longmans, Green, and Co.

Trollope, Anthony. 1857. The Three Clerks. London: Richard Bentley.

Van Dulken, Stephen. 2001. Inventing the 19th Century: The Great Age of Victorian Inventions. The British Library.