Anyone who has an interest in the history of Voynich is well aware of the unfortunate and disastrous attempts of William Romaine Newbold to solve its mysteries. Although an earnest and intelligent man, he could probably be considered the first to fall victim to the vast, nebulous, nature of the problem, in which one can often see any solution their individual proclivities lead them to.
But nebulous is a bit of an appropriate and even punny adjective, in Newbold’s case, as his most famous error was in believing that Roger Bacon not only wrote the Voynich, but possessed optical equipment which allowed him the ability to discern the spiral structure of the Andromeda Galaxy… or “Nebula”, in his time. I won’t here deal with the many other facets of Newbold’s infamous claims, not the least of which was the belief that each character was made up of microscopic segments, which were therefore coded information; or the resulting long strings of subjective results from those segments, which became immense anagrams which would and did yield infinite and diverse results.
What interests me are the Andromeda suggestions. It barely requires a detailed explanation as to why he was wrong, but very simply, the detail necessary to see the spiral nature of the Andromeda was not possible until the telescopes of the latter part of the 19th century allowed it. But if you are interested in a good dissection of the reasons why, read Norman Sperling’s excellent blog post on the subject, “Voynich: Spiraling into Folly”. As Sperling writes in his very first sentence, “William R. Newbold’s 1921 contention that the spiral graphic in folio 68r represents a spiral nebula is wild bunk.”
Above is the first picture of the Andromeda Galaxy, taken by Isaac Roberts, in 1895. As he described it in his 1899 book, “Photographs of Stars, Star-Clusters and Nebulæ”,
“That the nebula is a left-hand spiral, and not annular as I at first suspected, cannot now be questioned; for the convolutions can be traced up to the nucleus which resembles a small bright star at the center of the dense surrounding nebulosity; but notwithstanding its density the divisions between the convolutions are plainly visible on negatives which have a proper degree of exposure.”
Compare the Roberts photograph, and description, above, with the f68r image from the Voynich, below. Also note that the Voynich image spirals to the right, not the left, as the Andromeda does:
So then Newbold showed the f68r spiral image (above) to one “Eric Doolittle of our Flower Observatory”, who (according to the Newbold/Kent book, “The Cipher of Roger Bacon”, told Newbold,
“…that in his opinion it unquestionably represented a nebula, and that the man who drew it must have had a telescope”.
This alone seems to have led Newbold to one of his purely speculative “decipherments” of the center of f68r’s spiral illustration. However note that Doolittle did not say which spiral nebula, and bear that in mind when considering that some spiral nebulas known, and photographed by that time, were actually seen as a circular shape… as f68r’s illustration shows… and not as an oval, due to an angle to the viewer, as the Andromeda does (see below, “Isaac Roberts M51 & M100 ‘Comæ’”). So we can’t really draw Doolittle into the web of error, considering this, nor knowing how the illustration was presented to him in the first place. However, Newbold takes the Nebula hint, runs with it, and translates the Voynichese at the center of the spiral,
“The legend is extremely difficult to decipher, but my first attempt gave the location of the object as between ‘the navel of Pegasus, the girdle of Andromeda, and the head of Cassiopea,’ and stated that it was seen in a concave mirror. The great Nebula of Andromeda lies within the triangle determined by these three points; it is there fore presumable the object which Bacon saw.”
And here, too, we see Newbold substituting Dolittle’s “telescope” with a “concave mirror”. I see in this a disingenuous, unscientific manipulation of the purely subjective results of Newbold’s, to reflect what he must have suspected: Telescopes were out of the question for Roger Bacon, but there were historic hints of concave mirrors being used in this capacity, at a very early date.
Look again at the f68r “spiral” in question. And below we see Isaac Roberts’ image of Nebulæ M51 and M100 “Comæ”, taken in the 1890′s. Comæ appears in his 1899 book. I feel these help to exonerate Doolittle to some extent, and further mire Newbold in a fog of questionable judgement. For I would have to say that if I saw the below photographs, and the above Voynich illustration, I would certainly have wondered, as Doolittle did, if there was a connection. At the very least I am certain that I would not have jumped to the oval-appearing Andromeda, as Newbold did, as it never appeared to me a good match. I also note they are right spirals, as f68r’s illustration is:
I have of course, as others have, wondered if Romaine Newbold was a victim of an overabundance of imagination, which drove his wild speculations to their obviously incorrect conclusions. But at the same time I felt this may point at Voynich, and possibly others, having fed the poor man just enough Roger Bacon “winks and nods” to send him off the cliffs of self-delusion. Anyone who did study Bacon would soon become aware of his possible use of optics and code, which would have caused Newbold to pick them up with relish- well, we know he did- but then he charged off at light-speed down a road Voynich never intended, or imagined. But perhaps all Voynich really wanted was…
… for Newbold to simply see a few microscopes instead of “jars”, a couple of diatoms and such, and maybe, M51 from Isaac Roberts’ book. If this is the case, I would imagine Voynich’s great frustration. Rather than being handed the desired reasonable, and yet exciting, Roger Bacon attribution, Newbold instead managed to taint the image of the Cipher Manuscript, along with his own reputation, and even, a little bit, the name of Roger Bacon himself… and thereby destroy any chance Wilfred Voynich would sell this manuscript in his lifetime.