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Kircher, Athanasius

1. Dates
Born: Geisa a. d. Ulster, Germany, 2 May 1602 [or 1601]
Died: Rome, 28 Nov 1680
Dateinfo: Birth Uncertain
Lifespan: 78
2. Father
Occupation: Academic, Man Of Letters
He was the youngest of six sons (there were also 3 daughters) of Johannes Kircher of Mainz, D.D. His father studied philosophy and theology at Mainz, receiving a doctorate in theology. He was called first by the Benedictines in Seligenstadt to be professor of theology. Afterwards, he 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. I think the only reasonable interpretation is that the family was too poor to educate them otherwise.
3. Nationality
Birth: Geisa a. d. Ulster, Germany
Career: Germany, France, Italy
Death: Rome, Italy
4. Education
Schooling: Religous Order, D.D.
Lots of study, but all in Jesuit institutions. There is clearly the equivalent of a B.A.
1614-1618, Jesuit Gymnasium in Fulda, learning Greek and Hebrew.
c. 1618-1622, at Paderborn (Jesuit College?), studying humanities, natural science, and mathematics.
After the college was closed due to military pressure, he finished his education in philosophy at Cologne.
1623, at Koblenz, where he took up humanities and languages and taught Greek.
1624, at Heiligenstadt, studying languages and "physical curiosities."
1625-1628, studying theology at Mainz. Being ordained within the Jesuit order and admitted to the fourth vow, he would have had a doctorate in theology.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Catholic (Catholic)
1616, entered the Jesuit order.
1628, was ordained a priest.
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Geography, Astronomy, Optics
Subordinate: Occult Philosophy, Magnetism, Gol.
Kircher was a polymath. These categories do not give a fully adequate description of his interests.
7. Means of Support
Primary: Patronage, Church Life
Secondary: Publishing
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. I am pretty sure that the three named places were all Jesuit colleges.
He worked for the elector of Mainz at cartography.
He spent a year of probation in Speyer (1629).
1628-1631, professor of ethics (philosophy), mathematics, Hebrew, and Syriac, at the Jesuit college in Würzburg. He fled because of the pressure of the Thirty Years War.
1631, taught mathematics, natural philosophy, and oriental languages at the Jesuit college at Avignon.
1633, he 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 (he seems to have had an 8 year contractual obligation) and returned to independent studies. All told, he undertook such independent studies for 46 years of his life. He was supported in Rome by Papal as well as other patronage.
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 is the first scientist I have found who was able to command support through the sale of his works.
8. Patronage
Types: Eccesiastic Official, Court Official, Aristrocrat, Government Official
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.
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. 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.
Kircher dedicated his first book to the nobles of Avignon, including Peiresc.
1633, the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II appointed him to the professorship of mathematics at Vienna or the position of court mathematician, but Cardinal Barberini quickly offered him a position in Rome so that he would not go. 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.
1633, Urban VIII and Cardinal Barberini called him to Rome. Barberini was a major patron in Rome throughout Kircher's time there.
1637-1638, he accompanied the later Cardinal Friedrich of Hessen-Darmstadt to Malta as his confessor. Friedrich converted to Catholicism under the tutelage of Barberini, and through this contact became impressed with Kircher, whom he specially requested as his confessor.
Cardinal Fabius Chigi, later Pope Alexander VII, was a patron.
Kircher dedicated two volumes of one of his works to the Prince of Fulda, Joachim, Baron of Gravenegg.
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 (see technical connections) which he dedicated to Duke Ludwig von Mecklenburg, one of Kircher's patrons.
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 (see below). 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-Lüneberg. 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.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: Instruments, Navigation, Cartography
These are not especially significant technical connections (except the longitude one): he described a device for measuring magentic force using a balance, promulgated the use of magnetic inclinations to find longitude, described a graduated aerometer, and described the method of measuring temperature by the bouyancy of small balls. He also designed and built sundials at Koblenz and Mainz.
From time to time he also did surveying and mapping, e.g., for the Elector of Mainz, and while in Narbonne (before he arrived at Avignon). In connection with this he developed a triangulation instrument.
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, as I understand it, a mathematical instrument, which I believe was called Kircher's pantometer.
10. Scientific Societies
Memberships: None
Connections: He acted as a kind of astronomical clearing house for observations between G.B. Riccioli, G.D. Cassini, and Hevelius.
Kircher worked closely with Caspar Schott, S.J., and Joseph Petrucci.
  1. Fritz Krafft, Neue deutsche Biographie 11, 641b-5a.
  2. Karl Brischar, "P. Athanasius Kircher, ein Lebensbild," Katholische Studien, 3, no. 5 (1877).
  3. John Fletcher, "Astronomy in the Life and Correspondence of Athanasius Kircher," Isis, 61 (1970), 52-67. Note: Fletcher is not particularly significant; I put it down for reference.
  4. Edmond R. Kiely, Surveying Instruments, (New York, 1947), p. 232.
  5. A number of details in this report come from an oral presentation by Martha Baldwin who is completing a biography of Kircher.
Not Available and Not Consulted
  1. John Fletcher, ed., Athanasius Kircher und seine Beziehungen zum gehlehrten Europa seiner Zeit, (Wolfenbütteler Arbeiten zur Barockforschung, 17), (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 1988). Alfonso Mirto, "Le lettere de Athanasius Kircher della Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale di Firenze," Atti e memorie dell'Accademia Toscana di Scienze e Lettere "La Comombaria", 54 (1989), 125-65.
  2. Bartola Alberto, "Il matematico e gli astri: Contributo allo studio dell'arithmologia di Athanasius Kircher," in Gli arcani delle stelle: Astrologi e astrologia nella Biblioteca Casanatense, no ed. given, (Roma, 1991).
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

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©1995 Al Van Helden
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