Franz Helm’s illustrated manual on pyrotechnic weapons was around for more than four centuries before it went viral.
When the German artillery expert wrote the manual, in the mid-1500s, he unwittingly created a piece of media ideally suited to the tastes of 21st-century Internet culture: Cats that appeared to be wearing jet packs.
Helm appears to have been describing a creative siege tactic. In order “to set fire to a castle or city which you can’t get at otherwise,” he advised in the manuscript, an invading army might arm cats (and birds) with flammable payloads and then send the animals to wreak havoc inside the enemy’s walls.
A version of the illustrations in Helm’s book, created as part of a digitization project at the University of Pennsylvania, went viral on the web last year. This month it went viral again, after an Associated Press reporter revisited the drawings. And this time around, delighted Twitter users began appending their posts with the hash tag “#rocketcats.”
The recent popularity of Helm’s obscure manuscript has left archivists, at Penn and elsewhere, wondering what this new form of public engagement could mean.
Buzzfeed, the web-culture omnibus site, published an article in February titled “8 Book Historians, Curators, Specialists, and Librarians Who Are Killing It Online.” The author, a former research curator at the New York Public Library, praised an array of academics “who embrace social media to broadcast their ardor for archival treasures.”
What is it worth to be “killing it online”? Should the stewards of university collections try to deploy rocket cats (and other “shareable content”) to reach audiences they couldn’t get at otherwise? Or would such a tactic be silly and ineffective? Read more…
- This Guy Drew a Cat. You Won’t Believe What Happened 4 Centuries Later. (chronicle.com)
- ‘Rocket Cat’ Warfare Found in 16th-Century Manual (fromthetrenchesworldreport.com)
- Why Do 16th-Century Manuscripts Show Cats With Flaming Backpacks? (news.nationalgeographic.com)
- Cats Flying Through the Air With Jet Packs: Odd Illustrations from a 16th Century Military Manual (openculture.com)