Why are these animals in a 16th century manuscript wearing jet packs? That’s the mystery Mitch Fraas, Scholar in Residence at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries’ Kislak Center for Special Collections, set out to decipher. It turns out the truth is a bit macabre, but the illustrators obviously took some whimsical joy in depicting these rocket cats and birds. Fraas told Atlas Obscura more about these fire-fueled cats:
Just about a year ago, a friend sent me a link with a picture from one of our manuscripts here at Penn. I gaped… was that really a picture of a cat and a bird propelled by rocket packs!? This seemed pretty unlikely for a 16th century manuscript, but within a week I had turned up another half dozen examples of similar illustrations. So, what’s the deal with these rocket creatures?
All of the illustrations here come from early explosives and warfare manuals copied and re-copied with alterations between the 16th and 17th centuries. The immediate originator of the idea behind these cat and bird bombs was Franz Helm of Cologne, an artillery master in the service of various German princes who likely served in campaigns against Turkish forces during the mid-16th century. He wrote a treatise on siege warfare (Buch von den probierten Künsten) and artillery that circulated widely in manuscript, but was not published in print until 1625.