Kircher, Athanasius

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Kircher, Athanasius

Athanasius Kircher (ätänä´zēŏŏs kĬrkh´ər), 1601?–1680, German Jesuit archaeologist, mathematician, biologist, philologist, astronomer, musicologist, and physicist. One of the world's great polymaths, he knew Hebrew, Aramaic, Coptic, Persian, Latin, and Greek as well as various modern languages. Kircher was interested in all branches of science, especially in subterranean phenomena (volcanic forces in particular), in the deciphering of hieroglyphics (albeit incorrectly), the chronologgy of ancient Egyptian dynasties, and in linguistic relations. He also aided Bernini in the erection of an Egyptian obelisk in Rome's Piazza Navona and in the construction of his fountain. Kircher's frequently playful inventions included an early slide projector, a talking and eavesdropping statue that employed a primitive intercom, a chamber of mirrors, and a vomiting machine.

At first a professor of ethics and mathematics at the Univ. of Würzburg, he later became a (1635) professor of physics, mathematics, and Oriental languages at the College of Rome, resigning in 1643 to devote himself to archaeological research. His studies with the microscope led him to the belief, which he was possibly the first to hold, that disease and putrefaction were caused by the presence of invisible living bodies. He also perfected the aeolian harp and wrote a noted book on musicology. His remarkable collection of antiquities became the nucleus of the Museum Kircherianum of the College of Rome. His writings fill 44 folio volumes and include an autobiography.

See biography by J. Glassie (2012); studies by P. C. Reilly (1974), J. Godwin (1979), and D. Stolzenberg (2013).

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