Today is Francis Bacon's birthday. Actually it isn't, because he was born January 22 Old Style, not Gregorian. Anyway. Bacon is one of the most influential figures in the history of science, even though he never really discovered or invented anything himself. Instead, what Bacon invented, more or less, was the modern scientific enterprise itself.
Before Bacon, there was an almost impenetrable barrier between what we call science and what's now known as technology. Gentlemen did science, tradesmen did engineering. Archimedes, for instance, loathed the work he did for the Tyrant of Syracuse building weapons to defend the city -- he much preferred abstract mathematics because it was more suitable to a man of his station in life.
Francis Bacon was a nobleman himself, part of the politically powerful Cecil clan which pretty much monopolized the English government under Elizabeth I. Francis himself became Attorney General and Lord Chancellor under James I, but fell from power in a bribery scandal.
But Bacon's interest in science was more than that of a dilettante. As a student at Cambridge he was unimpressed by Aristotle's works, especially the great philosopher's over-reliance on theoretical reasoning rather than experiment and observation. In his own great work, Novum Organum, Bacon urged the importance of inductive reasoning from observation, rather than deduction from first principles. In other words: gather the data, then come up with the theory. Sound familiar? That's the short version of how scientists still work today.
The second part of Bacon's revolutionary thought was his emphasis on applied science as a source of social benefit. In his book The New Atlantis he described an imaginary Utopia of advanced technology. He also encouraged his fellow English intellectuals to come up with ways to apply science to practical ends. All this might have been no more than well-meaning pipe dreams, but Bacon had the political and intellectual clout to make it happen. His followers became the founders of the Royal Society.
It's hard for moderns to understand how revolutionary these seemingly simple ideas of Bacon's were at the time. Observe the world, and use your knowledge to change the world. But before Bacon, knowledge and intellect were part of the realm of the mind, while worldly things were the realm of the body -- and the two seldom met. Bacon built a bridge between the mental and physical realms, with amazing results for both.
Researchers finally shed the straitjacket of Aristotelian pure reasoning and started actually looking at things, leading to an explosion of new discoveries. Meanwhile, scientific principles replaced the rule-of-thumb and guesswork of earlier technology, and suddenly machinery got better. Finally, his emphasis on knowledge as a public good meant that scientists and inventors publicized their work -- and so could draw on each other's discoveries.
Oh, and he didn't write Shakespeare's plays. He didn't have time.