Biography of Athanasius Kircher


Athanasius Kircher was Jesuit priest and scholar, sometimes called the last Renaissance man, important for his prodigious activity in disseminating knowledge. In 1641 he wrote a famous book “Magnes sive de arte magnetica opus tripartitum” where he for the first time introduced the term “electro-magnetism”. Athanasius Kircher was born on May 2, 1602 or 1601 (the year of his birth is uncertain), in Geisa, Thuringia (now Germany).

From his birthplace he was accustomed to add the Latin epithet Bucho, or Buchonius, to his name, although later he preferred calling himself Fuldensis after Fulda, the capital of his native country. The name Athanasius was given him in honour of the saint on whose feast he was born. Athanasius Kircher was the youngest of six sons (there were also 3 daughters) of Johannes Kircher of Mainz.

The father of Athanasius, had studied philosophy and theology at Mainz, without, however, embracing the priestly calling. As soon as he had obtained the doctor’s degree in the latter faculty, he went to lecture ontheology in the Benedictine house at Seligenstadt. Afterwards, Johannes Kircher was called by the Prince-Abbot Balthasar of Fulda, who named him councillor and named him baliff (Amtman) of Haselstein, one of the “Aemter” of Fulda. The abbot was expelled due to political upheaval, and Kircher also lost his position. Thereafter he moved with his family to Geisa a.d. Ulster, where he dedicated himself to scholarship and raising his children. He declined all subsequent offers for political positions.

All six sons entered religious orders because the family was too poor to educate them otherwise. In 1614-1618 Athanasius Kircher learned Greek and Hebrew at the Jesuit Gymnasium in Fulda. He entered the Jesuit order at Paderborn on 2 October, 1618. In ca. 1618-1622 he studied humanities, natural science, and mathematics at Paderborn (Jesuit College?). After the college was closed due to military pressure, he finished his education in philosophy at Cologne. In 1623 Athanasius Kircher took up humanities and languages and taught Greek at Koblenz. In 1624 he studied languages and “physical curiosities” at Heiligenstadt. In 1625-1628 Athanasius Kircher studied theology at Mainz. While still a student, he taught to support himself. At Koblenz (1623), he taught Greek, at Heiligenstadt (1624), he taught grammar, and at Mainz, he taught Greek and conducted the choir.

As a youngster Kircher had three near-death experiences. While swimming in a forbidden pond he was swept under a mill wheel; later inadvertently he was pushed from an onlooking crowd into the path of race horses; and finally he suffered a gangrenous leg from a skating accident. The last cured suddenly after he prayed to the Blessed Virgin and it occurred to young Athanasius that he was receiving a great deal of divine protection and he did not forget these signs.

In ca. 1625-1628, Kircher came to the attention of the Elector of Mainz through his experimental investigations and was called to his residence at Aschaffenburg, where it was Kircher’s duty to discuss problems of mechanics with the Elector. During this period he was also assigned the task of surveying and making an exact map of the territory regained from the Protestants for the Archbishop of Mainz. In connection with this he developed a triangulation instrument. In 1628 Athanasius Kircher ordained a priest. Being ordained within the Jesuit order and admitted to the fourth vow, he would have had a doctorate in theology. He spent a year of probation in Speyer (1629) and was professor of ethics (philosophy),mathematics, Hebrew, and Syriac, at the Jesuit college in Wurzburg (1628-1631).

Athanasius Kircher fled the increasing factional and dynastic fighting in Germany (part of the Thirty Years’ War) and taught mathematics, natural philosophy, and oriental languages at the Jesuit college at Avignon (1631). He had some connection with the Senator of Provence and scientific patron, Nicholas Peiresc. While in Aix (after leaving Avignon and before taking up his position in Rome), he entered into the circle around Peiresc.

In 1633, the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II appointed him to the professorship of mathematics at Vienna or the position of court mathematician. When Peiresc heard of his plans to take the teaching position offered by the Emperor in Vienna, he went behind Kircher’s back to the heard of the order, Mutius Vitelleschi, and, through Cardinal Barberini, to the Pope, to prevent Kircher leaving by having him called to Rome. In 1633 Athanasius Kircher answered a call to Rome by Pope Urban VIII and Cardinal Barberini. He was appointed professor of mathematics, physics, and oriental languages at the Collegio Romano. He resigned after 8 years and returned to independent studies.

Kircher’s sketch of Vesuvius

He took advantage of a trip to Malta to explore thoroughly the various volcanoes which exist between Naples and that island. He studied especially in 1638 the Strait of Messina, where, besides the noise of the surge, a dull subterranean rumble attracted his attention. At Trapani and Palermo his interest was aroused by the remains of antediluvian elephants. But before all else he tried to discover the subterranean power of the volcanoes of Etna and Stromboli, then in eruption; public attention had been called to such mysterious phenomena by the frightful eruption of Vesuvius in 1630.

When Kircher left Messina in 1638 to return to Naples, a terrible earthquake occurred which destroyed the city of Euphemia. Like Pliny before him (A.D. 79), Kircher wished to study at close range this powerful convulsion of nature. On reaching Naples he at once climbed Vesuvius, and had himself lowered by means of a rope into the crater of the volcanic mountain and with the help of his pantometer ascertained exactly the different dimensions of the crater and its inner structure. As the first fruits of his travels he published, for the Knights of Malta, “Specula Melitensis Encyclica sive syntagma novum instrumentorum physico – mathematicorum” (Messina, 1638).

It was forty years later that the fully matured results of theses investigations appeared in Kircher’s great work, the “Mundus Subterraneus”, in two volumes (Amsterdam, 1678), which enjoyed the greatest repute in his time; not only did it give an incentive to the more searching investigation of subterranean forces, but it contributed much to their final explanation.

Museum Kircherianum in Rome

When again in Rome, Kircher began collecting all kinds of antiquities and ethnologically important remains, thus laying the foundation of the well-known museum which, as the “Museum Kircherianum”, still attracts today so many visitors to the Roman College. Kircher’s notable museum was founded with a donation from Alfons Donnius, secretary of the Roman Senate and people. From a wide variety of nobles and rulers, mostly German, he received extensive gifts of stuffed animals and birds from the new world for the museum. The museum also inclued a notable collection of portraits of ecclesiastical officials and rulers, all of which we given to him. Kircher’s disciple, Caspar Schott, produced a commentary on Kircher’s pantometer which he dedicated to Duke Ludwig von Mecklenburg, one of Kircher’s patrons.

Bernini’s baby elephant mounted by the Minervan obleisk (discovered in 1665) and interpreted by Kircher

Epoch-making also were Kircher’s labours in the domain of deciphering hieroglyphics, and, on the excavation of the so-called Pamphylian obelisk, he succeeded in supplying correctly the portions which had been concealed from him. It must be remembered that in those days little or no attention was paid to this subject, and that it was therefore in itself a great service to have taken the initiative in this branch of investigation, however lacking his efforts may have been in the fundamental principles of the science as it is known today.

Kircher also gave an impetus to the intimate study of the relations between the different languages: Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Chaldaic, Syrian, Samaritan, Arabic, Armenian, Coptic, Persian, Ethiopian, Italian, German, Spanish, French, Portuguese.

Kircher undertook independent studies for 46 years of his life. He remained for most of his life, functioning as a kind of one-man intellectual clearinghouse for cultural and scientific information gleaned not only from European sources but also from the far-flung network of Jesuit missionaries. He was supported in Rome by Pope as well as other patronage. When Kircher “translated” the hieroglyphs on an obelisk for the Pope, the Pope asked him what he wanted in return. Kircher refused anything for himself but asked for a donation to the church he was restoring. He received a very large one. After he dedicated a book to the next Pope, he was asked again what he wanted and replied in the same way. The gift this time was significant but not nearly as large as the other. Finally, an episode which illustrates how well Kircher was tied into sources of patronagae toward the end of his life: In 1665, Kircher discovered the spot where a miraculous deer with a crucifix between its antlers had appeared to St.

Eustachius and resolved to rebuild the ruined church which marked the spot. First, he received a letter of credit for 100 scudi from the Duke of Braunschweig-Luneberg. After he published Historia Eustachio-Mariana (1665), he received a draft for 1000 imperials from Emperor Leopold, 400 scudi from Johann Friedrich, Count of Wallenstein and Archbishop of Prague, and 700 scudi from Peter of Aragon, Viceroy of Naples. He collected large sums for this project from Catholic rulers all over Germany.

Kircher’s research encompassed a variety of disciplines including geography, astronomy, mathematics, language, medicine, and music, bringing to each a rigorous scientific curiosity girded in a mystical conception of natural laws and forces. His methods ranged from the traditionally scholastic to the boldly experimental.

Kircher is not now considered to have made any significant original contributions, although a number of discoveries and inventions (e.g., the magic lantern) have sometimes been mistakenly attributed to him. Rather, it is his extensive reporting activity that secures his place in intellectualhistory. He wrote some 44 books, and over 2,000 of his manuscripts and letters survive. In addition, he assembled one of the first natural history collections, long housed in a museum that bore his name, the Museo Kircheriano at Rome; this legacy was later dispersed among a number of institutions.

This traditional portrait of Athanasius Kircher gives his age as 76. The engraver has emphasized the energy in Kircher’s inquiring eyes. A professor of eloquence in Rome added the flowery inscription: “The painter or poet would declare only in error: ‘This is the man.’ But the farthest Antipodes know his name and face.”

Kircher dedicated his first book to the nobles of Avignon, including Peiresc. In 1638 Kircher wrote and dedicated to Paul Lascaris, the Grand Master of the Order of the Knights of St. John (the Johanniterordens), a book for the use of knights designed to help them solve “the most important mathematical and physical problems.” This involved a mathematical instrument, which I believe was called Kircher’s pantometer. Kircher’s books on magnetism (1640) and the Egyptian language (1643) are dedicated to Ferdinand III. Ferdinand III supported the costs of having manuscripts copied and sent to Kircher. Ferdinand also paid for the printing of books on heiroglyphics and ancient cultures (1652); he paid 3000 scudi printing costs, and granted Kircher a pension of 100 scudi, which his successor Leopold I also paid. Kircher, who apparently understood the patronage game very well, also dedicated individual chapters of the book on hieroglyphics to a variety of individuals in high places. Especially the study of Egyptian antiquities and hieroglphics made Kircher a cultural superstar of the mid 17th century, so that he could command patronage from almost any source. Kircher dedicated two volumes of one of his works to the Prince of Fulda, Joachim, Baron of Gravenegg.

“Magnes sive de arte magnetica opus tripartitum” by Athanasius Kircher, 1641

This work contains all that was known in his day on the subject of electricity and magnetism. Kircher’s Magnes is filled with curiosities, both profound and frivolous. The work does not deal solely with what modern physicists call magnetism. Kircher discusses, for example, the magnetism of the earth and heavenly bodies; the tides; the attraction and repulsion in animals and plants; and the magnetic attraction of music and love. He also explains the practical applications of magnetism in medicine, hydraulics, and even in the construction of scientific instruments and toys. In the epilogue Kircher moves from the practical to the metaphysical (and Aristotelian) when he discusses the nature and position of God: the central magnet of the universe. This work contains the first use of the term “electro-magnetism”, (page 640).

This work, like others of Kircher’s printed works, became very popular. The Magnes had a powerful influence upon Otto von Guericke, while Jungius, Leibniz and others quoted from Kircher’s works. While William Gilbert’s De magnete (1600), the first thoroughly modern treatment of magnetism, influenced Kircher considerably, Kircher adapts Gilbert’s theories of magnetism and Kepler’s work in astronomy, but does not hesitate to refute either.

The work is divided into three parts: the first on the magnet itself; the second on its application (encompassing magnetic statics, magnetic geometry, magnetic astronomy and magnetic natural magic); and the third on such topics as the magnetism of the earth and other heavenly bodies, the use of the thermometer, natural and artificial weather, magnetism of medicines, poisons and antidotes, the attractive force of the imagination, and the magnetism of music and of love.

Part III contains a large section featuring the role of magnetism in medicine, including a chapter on Tarantism, the Dancing Mania of the middle ages caused by the bite of the tarantula, and centered on the Italian city of Taranto (in Apulia). This section includes a fine engraved plate of anatomical illustrations of the tarantula. The disease is described and musical examples are provided, including lyrics, musical instruments, and dance steps used in effecting a cure.

In this work Kircher uses the narrative device of a fantastic voyage through space to discuss his theories of the solar system. Accompanied by the “music of the spheres,” the two protagonists (Theodidactus and Cosmiel) travel through the void to other worlds, and converse with the intelligent life forms they find there.

The magnetic clock described in Athanasius Kircher’s magnetic encyclopedia, the Magnes, published in 1641, linked the magical world of Baroque experimentation with the cosmological debates surrounding the Galileo trial of 1633. A version of the device was constructed by an English Jesuit professor in Liege, Fr. Francis Line, and was described in the book De symbolis heroicis, published in 1634.

The device consisted of a small solid orb, marked with the twelve hours and balanced “by a secret balancing of its mass” at the centre of a glass sphere filled with water. The orb was perceived to rotate “by an arcane force”, following the motions of the heavens from West to East. The time of day was indicated on the orb by a small fish, poised in the water. The device immediately attracted the attention of learned figures throughout Europe, including Rubens and Kircher’s patron, Nicholas Claude Fabri de Peiresc. Peiresc was convinced that the mysterious motion of the orb, apparently caused by a cosmic magnetic influence, might, by analogy, provide a demonstration of the diurnal motion of the Earth, thus vindicating Copernicus and providing hope for a revocation of Galileo’s condemnation by the Inquisition in 1633. While Peiresc continued to hold out hope, the ageing Galileo, confined under house-arrest in his Villa in Arcetri near Florence, wrote a letter to Peiresc to suggest that the device was operated by means of a trick , a magnet hidden in the base, rotated by means of a clock, caused another magnet in the ball to rotate, giving rise to the effect. In Kircher’s Magnes, the secret mechanism of the magnetic clock was fully revealed, and it was finally disarmed as a pro-Copernican argument. In addition to explaining the magnetic rotation of the sphere, which Kircher compared to the action of the Prime Mover in rotating the firmament, Kircher described how the ball could be made to “hover” at the centre of the glass globe by placing it at the junction of two immiscible liquids of different densities. The story of Kircher’s magnetic clock thus brings together the playful nature of Baroque instrumentation and the major cosmological debates of the seventeenth century, situating Kircher’s experimental productions within a European network of scholars. artists and patrons, including Rubens, Peiresc and Galileo.

Kircher’s magnetic clock

In the third chapter of the second book of his 1641 Magnes, sive de arte Magnetica, Athanasius Kircher unveiled at last the secret mechanism of Line’s magnetic clock, confirming once and for all, in spite of the earlier hopes of Peiresc, that it could not be used to demonstrate the condemned Copernican hypothesis of the motion of the earth. The clock was operated by means of a trick: the falling level of a water-clock, or “clepsydra”, hidden in the base of the machine caused a cylinder to rotate slowly.

A strong magnet fixed to the top of the cylinder caused a second magnet, situated inside the copper globe suspended at the centre of the glass sphere, to follow its rotation. A stationary fish points to the hour markings on the rotating copper globe to give the time. Kircher claims to have calibrated his device so that the cylinder would rotate once every twenty-four hours, although the water-clock would probably have required frequent refilling. Kircher’s work makes no reference to Francis Line’s earlier invention, but Kircher had received letters from his Jesuit correspondents informing him about the device prior to the publication of the Magnes. Kircher offers two alternative techniques for suspending the copper globe inside the glass sphere — either it can be suspended by threads made from silk or from Aloes leaves, or it can be suspended at the junction of two immiscible liquids of different densities, having the same colour.

Perhaps the first scientific investigation of animal luminescence was that of Athanasius Kircher, who devoted two chapters of his book Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae to bioluminescence. In the midst of his more scientific observations, Kircher found time to expose as a fallacy the notion that an extract made from fireflies could be used to light houses.

Athanasius Kircher, “Mundus subterraneus”

In 1664 Kircher published his masterpiece, an immense and amazing work entitled “Mundus subterraneus” (The Underground World) and covering all aspects of anything that dwelled or occurred within the earth’s interior – from lizards in caves, to fossils in rockks, to mountain springs, earthquakes, and volcanoes. Kircher’s Mundus Subterraneus marks the first serious effort to describe the physical makeup of the earth, proposing theories (sometimes fantastic) in the areas of physics, geography, geology, and chemistry. It was, in part, based on Kircher’s observations of the eruption of Vesuvius in 1637 and the two weeks of earthquakes that shook Calabria in 1638. He suggests the existence of a vast network of underground springs and reservoirs, as well as the theory that subterranean temperatures increase directly in proportion to depth.

Athanasii Kircheri e Soc. Jesu Scrutinum physico-medicum contagiosae luis, quae dicitur pestis… (Leipzig, 1659)

An investigation into the nature of bubonic plague, prompted by an outbreak of the disease in Naples during 1656. After examining the blood and urine of plague victims under a primitive microscope, Kircher hazarded a guess that a living organism (contagium animatum) might play a role in plague infection, but he stopped short of propounding an actual germ theory of disease.

Sometime around 1660 Kircher sold exclusive rights to publish his books to a prominent Dutch publisher for a large sum of money. Especially through his work on Egypt he had become a superstar. He was the first scientist who was able to support himself through the sale of his works.

Jesuit scientific writing during the second half of the seventeenth century was dominated by the work of Althanasius Kircher and his followers. Kircher wrote on an astonishingly wide range of scientific subjects, including medicine, acoustics, geology, astronomy and mathematics. Although Kircher’s philosophy — a blend of science and superstition combining empirical observation with magical and religious elements — seems strange to modern eyes, it was seriously noted and discussed by many eminent scientists of the time, including Descartes, Boyle and Leibniz. Although not in the mainstream of seventeenth-century scientific thought, the works of Kircher and his Jesuit contemporaries typify the complexity and diversity of scientific writing of the period. Kircher worked closely with Caspar Schott, S.J., and Joseph Petrucci. He acted as a kind of astronomical clearing house for observations between G.B. Riccioli, G.D. Cassini, and Hevelius.

The automatic organ of Athanasius Kircher

In Kircher’s book, Musurgia Universalis, published in 1650, we find a thorough description of the automatic water-powered organs of the Italian renaissance. The automatic organ of the Roman Quirinale shown here was built in 1647 by Italian organ builder Matteo Marione, following the designs of Athanasius Kircher.All automatic organs consist of three parts: The bellows, the windchest and a musical cylinder or barrel, on which the score is notated. The Quirinale organ is powered by water, which is used to drive the mechanism, as well as to compress the outward air before it is let into the windchest.On this picture you can clearly see the cylinder and key frame – which is the automatic organ’s equivalent to the keyboard.

Kircher’s aeolian harp

Aeolian harp (from Aeolus, the Greek god of the winds) is a stringed musical instrument played by the wind. It is made of a wooden sound box about 3 feet by 5 inches by 3 inches (1 m by 13 cm by 8 cm) that is loosely strung with 10 or 12 gut strings. These strings are all of the same length but vary in thickness and hence in elasticity. The strings are all tuned to the same pitch. In the wind they vibrate in aliquot parts (i.e., in halves, thirds, fourths… ) thus sounding the octave, 12th, second octave, and succeedingly higher harmonics of the string’s fundamental note. The principle of natural vibration of strings by the pressure of the wind has long been recognized. According to legend, King David hung his kinnor (a kind of lyre) above his bed at night to catch the wind, and in the 10th century Dunstan of Canterbury produced sounds from a harp by allowing the wind to blow through its strings.

The first known Aeolian harp was constructed by Athanasius Kircher and was described in his Musurgia Universalis (1650). The Aeolian harp was popular in Germany and England during the Romantic movement of the late 18th and 19th centuries. Two attempts to devise a keyboard version using a bellows were the anemocorde (1789), invented by Johann Jacob Schnell, and the piano eolien (1837), by M. Isouard.

Colour music was intended for instrumental performance in conjunction with a simultaneous projection of changing colours onto a screen. It has its origins in the theory, prevalent in the Renaissance and systematically set forth by Athanasius Kircher, that each musical sound has a necessary, objective correspondence to a certain colour. From the 18th to the 20th century, experiments were made by adapting various keyboard instruments in such a way that when a key was depressed it would, in addition to producing a sound, raise a coloured tape or glass through which light was projected on a screen. Several modern composers, notably Arnold Schoenberg and Aleksandr Scriabin, were attracted by the idea and produced examples of colour music.

The earliest known attempt to amplify a sound wave was made by Athanasius Kircher, of “bell-in-vacuum” fame; Kircher designed a parabolic horn that could be used either as a hearing aid or as a voice amplifier.

Kircher devised a number of boxes that housed distinct elements for combining into larger units. One of them allowed budding composers to produce four-part harmonies. This mathematical box, built to Kircher’s design, demonstrated a number of mathematical functions in arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, timekeeping, and music.

drawn by Kircher

With all his learning and vast amount of adulation which he received on all sides, Kircher retained throughout his life a deep humility and a childlike piety. In 1629 he had intimated to his general his desire to devote his life exclusively to the spreading of the Faith in China, but this wish remained unfulfilled, and, to console himself for this disappointment, he erected during his last years a sanctuary (della Mentorella) in honour of the Mother of God on the crest of the Sabine Hill near Rome, whither, during his lifetime as now, thousands made pilgrimages and found help and consolation. In this sanctuary Kircher’s heart was buried, and at the beginning of the twentieth century this place of pilgrimage was distinguished by a gigantic statue of Divine Redeemer on the neighbouring crest of Guadagnole.


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