Athanasius Kircher, S.J.

This site has been archived for historical purposes. These pages are no longer being updated.

Athanasius Kircher, S.J.
(1602 - 1680)
Master of a Hundred Arts

The Sallustian obleisk (First Century BC)
which was interpreted by Athanasius Kircher
Bernini's baby elephant mounted by the
Minervan obleisk (discovered in 1665)
and interpreted by Athanasius Kircher

Kircher's Works

Pantometrum Kircherianum (Wurzburg, 1669), a geometrical work describes a geometric calculator invented by the extraordinary Jesuit scientist Athanasius Kircher. In the same year he explained a kind of symbolic logic in another book Ars magna sciendi (Amsterdam 1669) and in a later book Tariffa Kircheriana (Rome, 1679) is a set of mathematical tables. These are three of the 39 books Kircher wrote. Some of them are huge, bigger than altar sacramentaries and with large print as if they were meant to be on continual display. Some of his other books are very well decorated with creative and entertaining drawings, such as his book of the bible stories Arca Noe (Amsterdam, 1675). In this book he makes it clear that he understands the evolutionary process; later biologists have been impressed by this remarkably progressive viewpoint.

The other books indicate his widespread interest and genius and why Kircher has been compared to Leonardo di Vinci. His first publication concerned magnetism: he emphasized the parallel between the forces of gravity and magnetism. Then he wrote of sundials, next on the Egyptian language, then on calendars, then on the 1656 bubonic plague. In the latter he attributes the plague to tiny animals which he had observed under a microscope. This is one of the earliest hints of what we today call "germs."

In 1680 Kircher is said to have correctly computed the ordinary ( vs. forced) flight of a swallow at 100 ft/sec - and this before the invention of stopwatches!
He wrote about the Coptic language and showed that it was a vestige of early Egyptian. His interest in interpreting the obelisks led him to such a thorough study of the subject that princes, popes and cardinals appointed him to decipher various obelisks. It was not until the discovery of the Rosetta stone in 1799 that anyone else had any success. In fact it was because of Kircher's work that scientists knew what to look for when interpreting the Rosetta stone. He has been called the real founder of Egyptology by Erik Iverson in the Myth of Egypt and its Hieroglyphs .

It is therefore Kircher's incontestable merit that he was the first to have discovered the phonetic value of an Egyptian hieroglyph. From a humanistic as well as an intellectual point of view Egyptology may very well be proud of having Kircher as its founder.

Since he was present at the violent eruption of Mount Etna in 1630, he had himself lowered into the cone for closer observation. It was good preparation for his two volume work, Mundus subterraneus (Amsterdam, 1665), probably the first printed work on geophysics and vulcanology. In it he held that much of the phenomena on earth including the formation of minerals was due to the fact that there was fire under the terra firma, an unusual teaching for those days. Some of his works were really encyclopedic in their scope. One such is Phonurgia nova (Kempten, 1673) which contains all the then-known mathematics and physics concerning sound and includes his invention of the megaphone. Another is the popular Musurgia universalis (Rome, 1646), one of his longest works, which marks a crucial juncture in the development of music. He had the good sense to distribute 300 copies to the Jesuit delegates from around the world who happened to be in Rome for the Eighth General Congregation of the Jesuit Society (1645-1646) which coincided with the publication of his book.
Although he adhered to Aristotelian physics, Kircher had no tolerance for alchemy, which, by the way, was taken seriously by Newton and Boyle. Newton's calculus and Boyle's law were apparently enough to extricate these latter two gentlemen from the later ridicule heaped on their contemporaries who were engaged in the Hermetic arts.

Athanasius Kircher's version
of the tower of Babel

Kircher's treatise on light, Ars magna lucis et umbrae (Rome, 1646), treats also of the planetary system. In it he shows no inclination to follow the heliocentric system, but he does favor Tycho Brahe's model in which the planets circle the sun. Some other inventions are found in this book, such as the magic lantern, the predecessor to the movies. For three centuries a science museum founded by Kircher, (perhaps one of the first of its kind in the world) has survived in Rome. Recently the scientific items of this museum have been divided up and spread throughout three Roman museums. So broad ( and so well-known ) were his interests that he was the recipient of many scientific curiosities.

One such curiosity is occasionally on display at the Yale Beinecke Rare Book Library. It is the Voynich "cipher" manuscript, probably about five hundred years old, a scientific text in an unidentified language called "the most mysterious manuscript in the world." Written by hand in an unknown alphabet on vellum it has 102 leaves including 8 folding leaves with about 400 botanical and 33 astrological subjects in five colors. Some of the plants have been identified as peculiar to America, so the earliest date would be the time of Columbus. To this day no one has been able to decipher it. One of Kircher's former students, John Marcus Marci, found it and brought it to Kircher because of his work on universal languages saying, ". . . for such Sphinxes as these obey no one but their master, Kircher." The present name of the manuscript " Voynich" is the name of the donor who was willing to pay $160,000 "for a book no one could read." It once belonged to Athanasius Kircher and had been on display in his museum.

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 1661 he found the remains of an ancient Marian church built by Constantine on the spot of St. Eustace's vision. He restored the place as a shrine and visited it often. Then when he died his heart was taken and buried there according to his last request. It is rather remarkable that this brilliant geometer and encyclopedist, called the "Father of Geology" and of Egyptology, founder of the first public museum and skilled in so many other branches of knowledge should reveal such simple piety.

His Kircher Museum was considered one of the best science museums in the world. Among his inventions are listed the megaphone, the pantometrum for solving geometrical problems, and a counting machine. His discoveries include sea phosphorescence as well as microscopically small organisms (germs) which transmit epidemic diseases. It was by facilitating a wide diffusion of knowledge, by stimulating thought and discussion by his vast collections of scientific information, that Kircher earned a place among the fathers of modern science and the titles of "universal genius" and "master of a hundred arts".


Archivum Historicum Societatis Iesu ( AHSI ) Rome: Institutum Historicum
Bangert, William A History of the Society of Jesus. St. Louis: St. Louis Institute, 1972uis, 1810
Gillispie, Charles. C. ed., Dictionary of Scientific biography. 16 vols. New York:
Oldenburg, Henry ed. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. vols. 1-30. London: 1665-1715
Reilly, Conor "A catalogue of Jesuitica in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London" in A.H.S.I. vol. 27,1958, p. 339-362
Sommervogel, Carolus Bibliothèque de la compagnie de Jésus. 12 volumes. Bruxelles: Société Belge de Libraire, 1890-1960

Athanasius Kircher's detailed sketch of Noah's Arc

Kircher's sketch of the City of BabylonKircher's sketch of Babylon's Hanging Gardens
Kircher's sketch of the Colossus of RhodesArchimedes' burning mirror setting fire to Roman ships at Syracuse in 214 BC
Kircher's sketch of VesuviusKircher's water organ
Kircher's magic lantern, predecessor to the moviesKircher's ingenious megaphone system

Adventures of Some Early Jesuit Scientists

José de Acosta, S.J. - 1600: Pioneer of the Geophysical Sciences
François De Aguilon, S.J. - 1617: and his Six books on Optics
Roger Joseph Boscovich, S.J. - 1787: and his atomic theory
Christopher Clavius, S.J. - 1612: and his Gregorian Calendar
Honoré Fabri, S.J. - 1688: and his post-calculus geometry
Francesco M. Grimaldi, S.J. - 1663: and his diffraction of light
Paul Guldin, S.J. - 1643: applications of Guldin's Rule
Maximilian Hell, S.J. - 1792: and his Mesmerizing encounters
Athanasius Kircher, S.J. - 1680: The Master of a Hundred Arts
Francesco Lana-Terzi, S.J. - 1687: The Father of Aeronautics
Francis Line, S.J. - 1654: the hunted and elusive clock maker
Juan Molina, S.J. - 1829: The First Scientist of Chile
Jerôme Nadal, S.J. -1580: perspective art and composition of place
Ignace Pardies, S.J. - 1673: and his influence on Newton
Andrea Pozzo, S.J. - 1709: and his perspective geometry
Vincent Riccati, S.J. - 1775: and his hyperbolic functions
Matteo Ricci, S.J. - 1610: who brought scientific innovations to China
John Baptist Riccioli, S.J. - 167I: and his long-lived selenograph
Girolamo Saccheri, S.J. - 1733: and his solution to Euclid's blemish
Theorems of Saccheri, S.J. - 1733: and his non Euclidean Geometry
Christopher Scheiner, S.J. - 1650: sunspots and his equatorial mount
Gaspar Schott, S.J. - 1666: and the experiment at Magdeburg
Angelo Secchi, S.J. - 1878: the Father of Astrophysics
Joseph Stepling, S.J. - 1650: symbolic logic and his research academy
André Tacquet, S.J. - 1660: and his treatment of infinitesimals
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S. J. - 1955: and The Phenomenon of man
Ferdinand Verbiest, S.J. - 1688: an influential Jesuit scientist in China
Juan Bautista Villalpando, S.J. - 1608: and his version of Solomon's Temple
Gregory Saint Vincent, S.J. - 1667: and his polar coordinates
Nicolas Zucchi, S.J. - 1670: the renowned telescope maker

Influence of Some Early Jesuit Scientists

The 35 lunar craters named to honor Jesuit Scientists: their location and description
Post-Pombal Portugal opinion of Pre-Pombal Jesuit Scientists: a recent conference
Seismology, The Jesuit Science. a Jesuit history of geophysics

Another menu of Jesuit Interest

Jesuit history, tradition and spirituality

Visit the Jesuit Resource Page for even more links to things Jesuit.

Contact Information and Table of Contents for This Site
Mathematics Department
Fairfield University
Fairfield, CT 06430
Voice mail - 203 256-7222
FAX 203-255-5947

These 13 polyhedra symbolize the 13 items of this page
which is maintained by Joseph MacDonnell, S.J.
They are the 13 Achimedean semiregular polyhedra.

To F.U.