Father Ernetti actual have a machine that could see back
into the depths of time? (Copyright Lee
An eccentric priest claimed he had a machine that could see
into the past. Was his story folly or fancy?
In his little 12 by 12 foot monastic cell Father
Pellegrino Ernetti greeted Father Francois Brune one afternoon
in the early 1960's. The two men had just met for the first time
the day before during a ferry ride across Venice's Grand Canal.
During their short conversation, Father Ernetti had said something
that stuck in Father Brune's mind. The two, who were both experts
on ancient languages, were talking about scriptural interpretation
when Father Ernetti remarked that there existed a machine that
could easily answer all their questions.
Father Brune was puzzled about what kind of machine
could do such a thing and resolved to bring it up again with Father
Ernetti in that day's meeting. When asked about it, Father Ernetti
described a device he called a "chronovisor" that looked a bit
like a television. Instead of receiving broadcasts from local
transmission stations, however, the chronovisor could tune into
the past to allow the viewer to see and hear events that had occurred
years or even centuries earlier. Father Ernetti told Brune that
the machine worked by detecting all the sights and sounds that
humanity had made that still floated through space. Father Brune
wanted to know if Father Ernetti and his collaborators had been
able to see the crucifixion of Christ. Ernetti replied, "We saw
everything. The agony in the garden, the betrayal of Judas, the
trial - Calvary."
What Father Ernetti was describing to Brune, the
chronovisor, was a type of time machine. It is unlike the fictional
devices found in most popular books, TV shows and movies, however,
that transport people into the future or past. This type of time
machine would bring pictures and sounds from the past into the
present. Time machines that transport people seem far beyond anything
our technology can currently build, but what about a device that
just deals with images and sounds? Could a machine like Father
Ernetti described be built?
like this large one at the Lick Observatory, can see back
in time millions and even billions of years (Copyright
Lee Krystek, 2009).
We actually use crude versions of chronovisors every
day. A security camera hooked to a video recorder will enable
us to see into the past. Even something as a simple as mirror
is really a type of chronovisor. We don't see ourselves in the
mirror as we currently are, but as we were just a few millionths
of a second before: the time it takes the light to travel from
our face to the mirror, reflect off and return to our eyes.
Large telescopes also act as chronovisors. The distant
galaxies we view through these devices do not actually look like
they are today, but as they appeared when the light left them
millions, or perhaps billions of years ago. If an alien scientist
on a planet one-hundred light years away had a powerful enough
telescope that he could view activities on Earth he wouldn't see
recent events, but life as it was a century ago. He would see
the Wright Brothers invention of the airplane, not the launch
of a space shuttle.
If it is possible to see into the past of a distant
galaxy using a telescope, why can't a device be built that would
allow us to peer into history here back on Earth?
Undoubtedly such as device would be much more complicated
than even the most advanced telescope. Telescopes can see back
in time, but what part of history they view is entirely a function
of how far away the object is. A star 500 light-years away can
only be seen as it was five centuries ago, not as it was a hundred
years later or earlier than that. And, of course, they can only
view what is visible from earth. We cannot see what is on the
far side of the Crab Nebula no matter how much we are interested
in what it looks like. The device described by Father Ernetti,
however, seemed to be able to tune into almost any era and any
Secret Team of Scientists
How did the priest get a hold of such a fantastic
machine? According to what he told Brune, he had been working
with a Father Agostino Gemelli at the Catholic University of Milan
trying to filter harmonics out of Georgoian chants when they heard
the voice of Gemelli's late father speaking to them on the wire
recorder they were using (Gemelli later confirmed this incident).
This got the priest thinking about what happened to all the sights
and sounds humans make. Did they disappear completely or do they
continue to exist in some way? Ernetti approached some eminent
scientists and assembled a team to work on the project. The group
inclided Enrico Fermi (one of the designers of the first atomic
bomb) and Wernher von Braun (the German rocket scientist).
German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun was a part of
the chronovisor team, Father Ernetti told Brune.
The team built the chronovisor so it could tune
into any time or place. They observed not only the crucifixion
of Christ, but French conqueror Napoleon, the Roman philosopher
Cicero, and the play Thyestes by the Roman poet Quintus
Brune was astonished that he had not heard of the
invention of this device. "Why hide such a discovery?" he asked.
Father Ernetti replied that the team had decided
to voluntarily dismantle the device. Since it could tune into
any place at any time in the past it left no room for privacy.
In the wrong hands, Ernetti said, it could create the "most fearsome
dictatorship the world has ever seen."
Father Ernetti also spoke at some conferences on
paranormal phenomena discussing his machine. While he never produced
the device itself, he was eventually coaxed into displaying some
forms of proof. The first was the text of the play Thyestes.
The play Thyestes was written by Quintus
Ennius who was born 239 B.C. in what is now Calabria, Italy. Ennius
is sometimes called the "Father of Latin Poetry" and over the
course of his lifetime he wrote about 20 plays and an epic poem
on the history of Rome called Annals. Only a few fragments
of his work survive. His last play Thyestes was produced
only shortly before his death in 169 B.C.. Scholars have wondered
about this play for centuries. Though they know what the story
was about based on the writings of the first century author Seneca,
the actual text, except for a few lines, has been lost to history.
Sometime in the late 60's a Professor Giuseppe Marasca
became interested in the stories he was reading about Father Ernetti
and his machine. Marasca contacted Ernetti and eventually they
became friends. Ernetti promised to show Marasca his machine,
but never did. What he did present to the professor was a handwritten
manuscript of what he indicated was the complete play, Thyestes,
that he had supposedly copied down while watching the chronovisor.
Marasca held onto the text for a number of years, refusing to
show it to anybody. Eventually he passed copies to select individuals
including Father Brune.
The photo Ernetti
alleged was from the chronovisor. (Fair
A second piece of evidence that Father Ernetti released
was a picture of Christ's face while he was on the cross, apparently
photographed through the chronovisor. The photo shows the face
of a bearded man with upturned eyes. It wasn't long, however,
before someone noticed that the picture was identical (except
being reversed left-to-right) to one sold at the Sanctuary of
Merciful Love in Collevalenza, Italy. The photograph shows a wooden
carving of Jesus in the sanctuary by the Spanish artist Cullot
After this revelation Father Ernetti said little
more about the photograph and the chronovisor. He died in 1994.
As for the manuscript of Thyestes that he
said he had transcribed from watching the play on the chronovisor,
it seems too short - only 120 lines - for it to be the full play.
Most plays of this type would have been ten times as long. Dr.
Katherine Owen Eldred of Princeton University, an expert on the
play who translated the manuscript for the American edition of
the book Father Ernetti's Chronovisor, suspects that isn't
authentic. Many of the words used in this manuscript didn't appear
in the Latin language until over two centuries after the play
was first performed. The type of words and the way they are repeated
also suggest that the person who composed the manuscript had limited
skills in Latin. As Ennius, the playwright, was using his native
language this seems very strange. This makes one wonder if the
author wasn't Ennius, but Father Ernetti himself.
Enigma of Father Ernetti
What can we make of this strange story? It would
be easy to dismiss Father Ernetti as a crackpot or compulsive
liar. Outside of his entanglement with the chronovisor, however,
Father Ernetti was an extremely respected, but quiet, intellectual
whose specialty was archaic music. He spent most of his life doing
research and teaching on this subject and was the author of such
respected books as Words, Music, Rhythm and the multi-volume
work General Treatise on Gregrian Chant. Why would such
a respected clergyman, academic and author make up such a wild
After the Father's death the editors of Father
Ernetti's Chronovisor received a document from someone claiming
to be a relative of Ernetti but wishing to remain anonymous. The
document tells of how this relative was called to Ernetti's deathbed
and the priest confessed that he had made up the play and falsified
the picture. However, Ernetti continued to insist that the chronovisor
Since the document is anonymous it is hard to know
how much faith to place in it. Father Brune, Ernetti's long time
friend, believes that the chronovisor existed, but Ernetti came
under pressure from his superiors in the last years of his life
not to talk about it. Brune thinks the resemblance of the picture
to the statue can be explained by the artist carving the work
under the direction of a nun who had a vision. In the vision she
saw Christ hanging on the cross and described it to the artist.
The artist translated her vision exactly into the sculpture. The
sculpture and the photo look alike because they both are true
representations of Christ's face. One coming to us via the chronovisor,
the other through the nun's vision, suggested Brune.
We may never be able to prove that the story of
Ernetti's chronovisor was false, but with our technical capabilities
expanding continually might it be possible to someday build such
Trying to gather the remnants of electromagnetic
waves left over in the environment and reassemble them into a
coherent image seems an overwhelming task, even with the most
advanced computers. Some scientists have speculated, however,
that we may find past sounds preserved in the environment. They've
even given this speculative branch of science a name: Paleoacoustics.
The idea is that sound waves might have been recorded
and preserved by accident. One possible way this could happen
would be during the creation of pottery. In theory, a clay vessel
spun on a potter's wheel and given a spiral pattern with a stylus
would act like a primitive phonograph. On early phonographs, sounds
were preserved by using a tin (or later wax) cylinder spun with
a needle, etching a spiral groove down the surface of the cylinder.
The needle would pick up sounds waves and etch the vibrations
into the grooves. When the needle traveled down the groove a second
time, the effect would reverse itself and the needle would vibrate,
playing back the recorded sound.
On the pottery wheel the soft clay of the pot would
act as the recording medium and the stylus as the needle. In theory
the sound vibrations could be etched into the clay. Given that
this method of creating pottery has been around for thousands
of years this technique seems to hold out the promise of bringing
back sounds from the ancient past.
Though this idea for recovering ancient sounds has
been around since it was proposed by Richard G. Woodbridge in
a letter to Proceedings of the IEEE in 1969, nobody has
yet been successful in recovering ancient sounds (a hoax in 2006
suggesting Belgian researchers had accomplished this with a 2,000
year old piece of pottery fooled a number of people as it made
the rounds through various newspapers and across the internet).
However, as our instruments become more sensitive and our computers
more powerful we may yet see success with this type of investigation.
Still, if these techniques are successful they would
still be a far cry from Ernetti's chronovisor which could tune
into the past at any place or time. Will we ever be able to build
a machine like he described? Only time will tell.
Father Ernetti's Chronovisor : The Creation
and Disappearance of the World's First Time Machine by Peter
Krassa, New Paradigm Books, 2000.
Acoustic Recordings from Antiquity by Richard
G. Woodbridge III, Proceedings of the IEEE, Vol.
57(8), August 1969.
A Phonographic Phony by Benjamin Zimmer,
Language Log, http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002875.html
Thyestes, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thyestes
Krystek 2009. All Rights Reserved.