Weird History

Why Are These 16th-Century Cats Wearing Jetpacks?

Franz Helm's 16th-century military manual, Buch von den probierten Künsten, includes some crazy illustrations of the strategies he lays out therein – most notably what appear to be cats wearing jetpacks. Helm, a German artillery master, wrote his manual replete with illustrations involving strapping rockets to doves and cats, presumably to effectively wage war against one's enemy.

Using animals in warfare or in some other form of torture or abuse wasn't unique to the 16th century (take a look at the history of the bulldog, the sad reality of the turnspit dog, or the cat piano if in doubt), but cats wearing jetpacks is a pretty weird image even for the Early Modern era, a time when visions of the apocalypse included 400 flying dragons and an uptick in birth defects.

So, are these cats really wearing jetpacks? No, but they're really weaponized with fire and intended to be used in battle. 

  • Franz Helm Was From Cologne At A Time When German Territories Were Fighting Off The Ottomans

    In 1529, the Ottoman Empire was continuing its push west and trying to capture the Austrian city of Vienna. Sultan Suleiman I, also known as the Magnificent and the Lawgiver, defeated the Hungarians at the Battle of Mohács in 1526, which brought the Ottomans into direct contact with Austria. The Ottomans were forced to retreat from Vienna, but they continued to put pressure on Europe. In the midst of this, Franz Helm was actively fighting against the Turks along the south-eastern European border. 

    This experience in active combat gave Helm some pretty unique ideas for a warfare manual.

  • Franz Helm's Work On Warfare Circulated Widely As A Manuscript – But Wasn't Printed Until 1625

    As an artillery master who fought for various German princes, Franz Helm had a lot of experience fighting and trying to figure out the best ways to defeat one's enemy. His treatise, Buch von den probierten Künsten, includes tactical information on artillery and siege warfare and was well-known in the Germanic territories in the 15th century in its then-form as a manuscript. It was printed in 1625, which allowed for even wider circulation.

  • Helm Wrote About Using Cats Because They Could Get Into The Places People Couldn't Go

    Helm's manual, illustrations and all, gave instructions about how to use cats in warfare – as horrifying as it may sound. Basically, cats' penchant for hiding was the secret method to Helm's apparent madness:

    "Create a small sack like a fire-arrow... if you would like to get at a town or castle, seek to obtain a cat from that place. And bind the sack to the back of the cat, ignite it, let it glow well and thereafter let the cat go, so it runs to the nearest castle or town, and out of fear it thinks to hide itself where it ends up in barn hay or straw it will be ignited."

  • At First, The Discovery Of The Illustrations Boggled Scholars' Minds

    Historian Mitch Fraas is the one who finally cracked the mystery of the jetpack cats – but, at first, he was just as mystified by the illustrations as everyone else. After a friend sent him one of the images, he doggedly pursued their origin, which is how he ended up looking at Franz Helm's warfare manual. After tracking down Helm's illustrations, Fraas is the one who translated the work and shed light on the fact that the cats were not wearing an invention from the 20th century.