One of the most unlikely harbingers of the computer age was a Christian mystic. After getting his ass kicked by Muslim scholars, he thought up a device that would let him win any argument, answer any question, and convert all people to the one true faith.

A Man of Many Names and Many Talents

The man who invented the world's first spiritual computer had many names. Known in different texts as everything from Ramon Llull to Raymond Lully to Raimundus Llullius to Doctor Illuminatus, he was born in the Kingdom of Majorca in 1232.


For the first 30 years of his life, he lived as a secular man. He got a wife, a couple of kids, and more than a couple of mistresses. Schooled in the arts and raised in court society, he wrote a manual on chivalry that was reprinted into the 1500s. As he was raised in a territory that had recently been reconquered by Spain, he probably sensed a lot of strain between the Christian and Muslim populations. Whatever his thoughts about the political situation, Llull was influenced by all aspects of local culture. He picked up some Arabic and studied Sufi mysticism.

One day, when Llull was 30, he was sitting around, composing a song for a lady he liked. He glanced over and saw a vision of Jesus Christ on the cross. Within the year, he had given up everything (including his wife and kids) and joined the Franciscan order. Using both brains and determination, he set out to convert everyone around him. Not all of his tactics were good; when he couldn't convert Jews through strenuous debate, he argued for their expulsion from the territory. That wasn't an option for Majorca's large Muslim population, and it was even less of an option when Llull left his homeland and went wandering in northern Africa. By the time he was 40, Llull knew he needed new tactics.


The Ars Magna and the Beginnings of Calculus

The inspiration for his Ars Magna (Great Art) came in 1272, but he didn't publish it until 1305. The work was a tribute to learning and intelligence. He wrote about and illustrated concepts like The Tree of Knowledge and The Ascension of the Intellect.


More importantly, he came up with fantastically complicated drawings of wheels within wheels, all cut across by a multitude of lines. "Wheels of fortune" or "wheels of fate" were common themes at the time, but Llull's wheels were something else. He wasn't creating a picture, he was creating an answer-machine. Any question that a Muslim philosopher posed, Llull should be able to classify into different concepts, which would all be represented by different parts of the wheels. By manipulating the wheels, Llull should be able to generate an answer to the question. All questions could be answered in this fashion, Llull believed, and the omniscience of Christianity could be ably demonstrated. The people he was trying to convert didn't believe him. When he traveled again to northern Africa, in 1314, he was stoned. Injured, he was carried home to Majorca, where he died a year later.

The Legacy of Llull

Llull's work was much appreciated by Christians, and passed down through the generations. It inspired mystics and artists, but it also caught the eye of Gottfried Leibniz. Leibniz was intrigued by the idea of representational logic. Concepts could be represented by symbols, and those concepts could be worked through not by long-winded arguments, but by establishing a value for each and a calculable relationship between them. When philosophizing, Leibniz believed, people should stop doing word problems and start doing calculus.


The idea that of a mechanical object that could, through a series of computations, generate an answer to any number of questions had long legs. Today, the interlocking wheels of Ramon Llull are seen as one of the earliest conceptual versions of the computer. Ars Magna has even been translated into Cobol. Llull deserves our appreciation... at least now that we're no longer in danger of being harangued to convert.

Top Image: Daniel Tibi.

[Via Flame Wars, The Art and Logic of Ramon Llull, Logic and Metalogic, Raymond Llull's Contributions to Computer Science, Mathematics and Logic in History and in Contemporary Thought, Nineteenth Century Science]