Athanasius Kircher

I have been impressed with the urgency of doing. Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.
Leonardo da Vinci

Athanasius Kircher
Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680)

The prominent German Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher, whose interests covered “everything under the sun”, has a significant place in this site, because of his version of the Llullistic method, his automata, and his calculating tool Organum Mathematicum. Let’s see what is his contribution in the area of computing.

*** Kircher’s Llullistic method ***

Kircher was a professor of mathematics at the Roman college until 1646, and when he was released from teaching duties, he started publishing books, concentrating on a different subject every three to four years. He received visits or letters from scientists, royalty and clergy from all over Europe and beyond, together with a multitude of artifacts, curiosities of natural history and mechanical apparatus. These, together with his huge library, he later donated to a museum, which eventually became the famous museum of the Roman College or the Museum Kircherianum. This museum became one of the top attractions of Rome in the 17th century and continued to exist up to 1915.

Ars Magna Sciendi, Sive Combinatoria of Kircher
Ars Magna Sciendi, Sive Combinatoria of Kircher, Amstelodam, 1669

Interestingly for us, in 1669 Kircher published in Amsterdam a book, named Ars Magna Sciendi, Sive Combinatoria (see the nearby lower).

In the third chapter of his book, Kircher presented a new and universal version of the Llullistic method of a combination of notions. Kircher seems to be convinced that the Llullistic art of combination is a secret and mystical matter, some kind of esoteric doctrine.

Kircher used the same circle-figures of Llull, but the alphabet which Kircher proposes as material for his combination-machine reveals the difference from Lullus’ at first sight (see the figure below). It is not the signification in correlation with the position in the table, because all nine places in each table are filled with the same significations we find in the Llullistic tables, which makes the difference. It is the notation, which creates the difference.

In contrast with Llull, who used Latin words, with clearly defined significations for his combinations, Kircher began filling the tables with signs and symbols of a different kind. This means, that he attempted to solve problems other than the demonstration of the truth, which the Catholic Church had claimed.

Furthermore, as can be seen from the following figure, Kircher tried to calculate the possible combinations of all limited alphabets (not only graphical but also mathematical). As it is known, that at that time Kircher was a grand master of decipherment and tried to translate Egyptian hieroglyphic texts, it is clear that this schema can be connected to the process of encoding and decoding. Regarding his tabula generalis, the more mathematical way of thinking created the great difference between Llull and Kircher.

Ars Magna Sciendi table
Ars Magna Sciendi table

Kircher consequently published a book about the problems of encoding and decoding, and he even designed mechanical machines for the task.

*** Kircher’s Automata ***

Magne sive de Arte Magnetica
Magne sive de Arte Magnetica of Kircher

Athanasius Kircher was notable for his interest in machines and automata of different kinds: optical and acoustic machines, music boxes, hydraulic and astronomical machines, clockworks, tools and toys, mechanical puppets, and so on. This collection will become a foundation for the famous Musaeum Kircherianum. He also had plans for building a talking head and mechanical music-makers. There is a note from the British physician Edward Browne (1644-1708) who arrived in Rome in the 1670s to visit Kircher, and saw his closett of rarieties, which included a perpetual motion machine and a talking head. Kircher wanted to create a speaking statue for the visit of Queen Christina of Sweden to the Musaeum Kircherianum, a statue that will have to answer the questions that it is asked.

Obviously the Kircher’s interests in the field of automata began much earlier. In his book Magne sive de Arte Magnetica (see the upper title page), published for the first time in 1641, he describes and illustrates several automata, which depend for their action upon magnetism and pneumatics.

In Magne sive de Arte Magnetica Kircher gives a representation of an old automaton, commonly attributed to the Greek scientist Archytas of Tarentum (BC 428-BC 347) (who is believed to be the founder of mathematical mechanics and alleged inventor of the screw and the pulley), so-called Dove of Archytas. It was reputed to be the first artificial, self-propelled flying device, set in motion by a jet of what was probably steam, said to have actually flown some 200 meters. According to another story, the Dove was put in action by a revolving loadstone and was made to fly around a dial and mark the hours by pointing to the figures on its edge.

Page 543 of Magne sive de Arte Magnetica of Athanasius Kircher
Page 543 of Magne sive de Arte Magnetica of Kircher

On the lower illustration can be seen a wheel, driven by 2 Eolipiles in the form of human heads, which blow out jets of steam against the cellular periphery of the wheel. The little boilers (marked C and D), hidden in the heads, are illustrated in the lower part of the page.

Page 542 of Magne sive de Arte Magnetica of Athanasius Kircher
Page 542 of Magne sive de Arte Magnetica of Athanasius Kircher

Athanasius Kircher was also one of the first people, who described the mechanical organ utilizing the pinned barrel (although the hydraulic organ had been well-known since the time of Ctesibius). Kircher described also “the automatic organ machine which utters the voices of animals and birds” in which a satyr played a short piece on the pan pipes, to which a nymph replied, like an echo, with a melody played upon a small organ.

Kircher also devised a hydraulic machine to represent the Resurrection of the Savior and another device to exhibit Christ walking on water, and bringing help to Peter who is gradually sinking, by a magnetic trick. This device featured a strong magnet placed in Peter’s chest and the steel out of which were wrought Christ’s outstretched hands or any part of his toga turned toward Peter. The two figures, propped on corks in a pool of water, would then be drawn inexorably together: the iron hands of Christ soon feel the magnetic power diffused from the breast of Peter. The artifice will be greater if the statue of Christ is flexible in its middle, for in this way it will bend itself, to the great admiration and piety of the spectators.

*** Kircher’s Organum Mathematicum ***

Kircher’s Organum Mathematicum
Kircher’s Organum Mathematicum

In late 1650s as a prominent mathematician Athanasius Kircher was asked to prepare a set of mathematical tools for teaching the young Austrian crown prince (Archduke) Karl Joseph Erzherzog von Österreich (1649-1664). The order was fulfilled and a set of ten different tools of bone-like tablets for performing a variety of different tasks was manufactured (see the nearby image of the tool, placed now in the Istituto e museo di storia della scienza, Florence, Italy) and sent to Archduke in 1661, who was very pleased. The toolset (called Organum Mathematicum, Mathematische Orgel or cista) was placed in a veneered wooden chest with a hinged lid (taking up the space of a large desk) and was described later in a book by his pupil and friend Gaspar Schott (1608-1666)—Organum Mathematicum libris IX explicatum, published in 1668 in Würzburg, Germany.

Schott not only described Kircher’s Organum Mathematicum, but added his own improvement to Napier’s reckoning rods (he most probably didn’t know for the Rechenuhr of Schickard, created in the early 1620s, which also used rods, places on a cylinder’s surface). Instead of having to deal with a number of individual little rods each time one desired to perform multiplication, Schott designed a box (cistula) in which Napier’s rods were converted into cylinders, each one of them incorporating the complete set of multiples from one to nine previously found on several separate rods. To operate the machine, one only had to turn the cylinders’ handles to the proper figure needed to be multiplied, and it then only became a matter of following Napier’s well-defined rules of rabdology. Moreover, to ensure the machine would be utilized by the greatest possible number of people, a table of addition and subtraction was provided on the inside cover of the box.

Later on, the multiplication tool from Organum Mathematicum (with an improvement of Schott) was described in Theatrum arithmetico-geometricum of Leupold. The arithmetic tool consists of ten cylinders, on which surface are placed strips with inscribed Napier’s rods. The cylinders (see the lower figure) are mounted in a box, which is closed to the upper side from a lined sheet of pasteboard with narrow vertical slits. From the front side of the box are placed handles, attached to the cylinders, which can be used for rotating the cylinders, thus can be set needed multiplicand on the rods. On the inner side of the hinged lid of the box is inscribed an addition table to aid the operator.

The arithmetic tool of Organum Mathematicum in Theatrum arithmetico-geometricum of Leupold
The arithmetic tool of Organum Mathematicum in Theatrum arithmetico-geometricum of Leupold

Biography of Athanasius Kircher

Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680)
Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680)

Athanasius Kircher was born at three in the morning on 2 May (on the feast day of St. Athanasius, hence his name), 1601 (or 1602, even though he was unsure for the year), in Geisa, a small town located 26 km northeast of Fulda, Germany.

Athanasius was the seventh (last and weakest) child and fourth son of Johann (Johannes) Kircher of Mainz and Anna (nee Gansek), daughter of a burgher from Fulda. In fact, the family had nine children (six sons and three daughters, Ana, Agnes, and Eva), but two of the boys died in infancy, and the other four (Johannes, Andreas, Joachim, and Athanasius) entered various religious orders.

Johann Kircher, the father of Athanasius, had studied philosophy and theology at Mainz, receiving a doctorate in theology. He was called first by the Benedictine house at Seligenstadt to be a professor of theology. Afterward, in the early 1570s, he was called by the Prince-Abbot Balthasar of Fulda, who named him adviser and Amstvogt (bailiff) of Haselstein, one of the administrative divisions of Fulda. Johann Kircher administered affairs and justice for the Prince-Abbot until 1579, and during this period he met and married Anna Gansek, the virtuous daughter of one of Fulda’s most respected inhabitants. Thereafter he moved with his family to Geisa, where he served a two-year period as Stadtschultheiss (mayor) before dedicating himself to scholarship, teaching, and raising his children, declining all subsequent offers for political positions.

Athanasius received his early education mostly from his father (music, Latin, and mathematics) and private tutors (e.g. his father hired a local rabbi to teach him Hebrew), but also visited the Dame school in Geisa. At the age of ten, he was sent in the footsteps of his brothers to the Papal Seminary in Fulda. Before he left at the age of 16, he had learned Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and presumably at some point had made the lifetime commitment to a monastic career.

By this time, Kircher had developed into a quiet, introspective youth, suspected by his teachers of backwardness and slowness to respond to questions and commands. Unfortunately, he had quite a few personal troubles during his childhood. As a boy, he escaped serious injury or death at least three times: once while swimming he was sucked beneath the moving mill-wheel; secondly, he was jostled beneath the hooves of a phalanx of horse-riders; thirdly, he lost his way in the forests of the Spessart and wandered a whole day, before to stumble across some harvesters, who helped him. While Kircher emerged untouched from each of these accidents, in January 1617, while skating, he fell awkwardly, sustaining a serious abdominal hernia. Shortly before this, an ulcer had broken out of his leg, caused by protracted cold during winter evenings when he studied and meditated.

After failing in his first application, to the Jesuit College in Mainz, he was admitted as a novice to the college at Paderborn in October 1618. In Paderborn Kircher studied humanities, natural science, and mathematics, but in the early 1620s, his education was interrupted by the onset of the Thirty Years War. The advance of the fiercely anti-Jesuit army prompted him, with two companions, to flee at the end of January 1622. They struggled for many days through deep snow, penniless and begging for their food, and proceeded to cross the frozen Rhine river. Halfway across, a piece of ice broke loose and Kircher was carried away on it. His companions expected never to see him again. But he succeeded in swimming through the freezing water to the bank, and walking for three hours until he reached a shelter.

Kircher continued his education in philosophy, physics, and natural sciences at Cologne and in 1623, at Koblenz, where he took up humanities and languages. In 1624, at Heiligenstadt, he studied languages and “physical curiosities.” In 1625-1628, he studied theology, oriental languages, and astronomy at the Jesuit College in Mainz, where he obtained a doctorate in theology. 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.

In 1628 he was ordained within the Jesuit order and admitted to the fourth vow, and he finished his last year of probation at Speier, when the chair of ethics and mathematics was given to him at the University of Würzburg, while at the same time he had to give instructions in the Syrian and Hebrew languages. However, the disorders consequent from the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) forced him to go first to Lyons in France (1631) and later to Avignon, where he taught mathematics, natural philosophy, and oriental languages at the Jesuit college at Avignon. Here Kircher installed an astronomic observatory and an elaborate planetarium that showed the position of the Sun, Moon, and planets by means of a complex system of mirrors. The planetarium became a popular attraction in the city.

In 1632, the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II appointed him to the professorship of mathematics at Vienna or the position of court mathematician (to replace Johannes Kepler as court mathematician in the Hapsburg dynasty), but Pope Urban VIII and Cardinal Barberini quickly offered him a position in Rome so that he would not go. At the beginning of 1634, Kircher was appointed professor of mathematics, physics, and oriental languages at the Collegio Romano (now the Pontifical Gregorian University). He resigned after 8 years and returned to independent studies, undertaking such independent studies for 46 years of his life. He was supported in Rome by the Papal as well as another patronage.

In 1656, the Black Plague swept across Western Europe and Italy, and Kircher spent most of his time nursing the ill and attempting to find a cure. He examined the blood of his patients through a microscope and thought that the plague was caused by vernimuli in the blood. What he might well have seen was large bacteria in the contaminated blood specimens rather than the much smaller plague bacillus (Yersinia pestis). Despite this error, Kircher’s work is notable as the first attempt to apply the microscope to find the cause of disease and the first mention of a germ theory.

Kircher was not only a brilliant scientist but also a “business-oriented” and very influential man. He is one of the first scientists who was able to command support through the sale of his works. In 1661 he sold exclusive rights to publish his books (he was a prolific writer with 32 books and some 23 manuscripts of works that were not published) to the prominent Dutch publisher Janssonius for a large sum of money. Kircher apparently understood the patronage game very well, let’s mention only some of his patrons—popes Urban VIII and Alexander VII, Holy Roman Emperors Ferdinand II and Ferdinand III, Christina, Queen of Sweden, etc. For example his books on magnetism (1640) and the Egyptian language (1643) he dedicated to Emperor Ferdinand III, who not only paid for the printing of his books but also granted Kircher a pension.

The Museum Kircherianum in Rome
The Museum Kircherianum in Rome

In 1651, Kircher was assigned to organize the collections of objects of different types which belonged to the Roman College. He established a museum in one of the rooms of the college which was soon known as the Museum Kircherianum. The collection contained archaeological objects of Roman and Etruscan origin, given in great part by the Italian aristocrat Alfonso Donnino. It included also archaeological pieces from ancient Egypt, such as obelisks and mummies, and curiosities brought by Jesuit missionaries from all parts of the world. Another section was formed of minerals, rocks, fossils, and strange stuffed animals and skeletons. The museum also contained an art gallery with paintings and statues. Kircher added a collection of 19 machines and instruments built by himself for his experiments and described them in his books. This formed the most remarkable part of the museum. Among them, there was an automatic organ that imitated the songs of birds, a magic lantern (Laterna magica) to project images, and other instruments used for hydraulics, optical and acoustic experiments. Some instruments were of statues, with spiral tubes in their interior that seemed to talk. One of these acoustic tubes connected the museum with the porter’s lodge to announce visitors.

Athanasius Kircher died in Rome on 27 November 1680 and was buried in the Church of the Gesù. This fascinating figure left behind numerous manuscripts, notebooks, and a voluminous backlog of correspondence, much of which was published piecemeal over the following decades. Among some 760 addressees of his letters are to be found four popes, two emperors, the kings of France and Spain, the Queen of Sweden, cardinals, bishops, members of the European nobility, scholars, and Jesuit companions. Among the scientists, one finds Cassini, Mersenne, Huygens, Leibniz, and Gassendi.

Athanasius Kircher’s monument in his hometown, Geisa, Germany

Although Athanasius Kircher is known for a number of innovations, the vast majority of his output consisted of compilations of already-known material. His interests ranged widely over both the humanities and the sciences, and his most significant contribution was in the dissemination of this knowledge.