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celebrated for the versatility of his knowledge and particularly distinguished for his knowledge of the natural sciences, b. May 2, 1601, in Geisa, a small town on the north bank of the Upper Rhone (Buchonia); d. in Rome, November 28, 1680.
from his birthplace he used to add to his name the Latin epithet bucho, or buchonius, although later he preferred to be called fuldensis after fulda, the capital of his native country. The name Athanasius was given in honor of the saint on whose feast day he was born.
john kircher, athanasius’s father, had studied philosophy and theology in mainz, however, without embracing the priestly vocation. as soon as he obtained his doctorate at the latter faculty, he went to give a lecture on theology at the benedictine house in seligenstadt. athanasius studied humanities at the jesuit college in fulda, and on 2 october 1618 he entered the society of jesus in paderborn. At the end of his novitiate he moved to Cologne for his philosophical studies. the journey there was, because of the confusion caused by the Thirty Years’ War, attended with great danger. Along with his study of speculative philosophy, the talented young student devoted himself especially to the natural sciences and classical languages, for which he was shortly afterwards called to teach these branches at the Jesuit colleges in Koblenz and Heiligenstadt. In Mainz, where Kircher (1625) began his theological studies, he attracted the attention of the elector through his skill and skill as an experimenter. In 1628 he was ordained a priest, and had hardly finished his last year of probation at Speyer when he was given the chair of ethics and mathematics at the University of Würzburg, while at the same time having to give instructions in the Syriac and Hebrew languages. disorders derived from the wars forced him to move first to lyon in france (1631) and then to avignon.
The discovery of some hieroglyphic characters in the Speyer Library led Kircher to make his first attempt to solve the problem of hieroglyphic writing, which still baffled all scholars. in aix he met the well-known french senator sicolas peiresc, whose magnificent collections aroused the greatest interest in kircher. Recognizing that Kircher was the right man to solve the ancient Egyptian riddle, Peiresc directly requested Rome and the Jesuits’ general to annul Kircher’s summons to Vienna by the Emperor and procure a summons for the scholar to the Eternal City. this generous intention was favored by providence, since kircher, en route to vienna, was shipwrecked near cività vecchia, and arrived in rome before the knowledge of his call reached him. Until his death (November 28, 1680), Rome was now to be the main stage of Kircher’s multifaceted activity, which soon developed in such an astonishing fashion that pope, emperor, princes, and prelates vied with each other. each. in promoting and supporting the scholarly scholar’s research. After six years of successful teaching at the Roman College, where he taught physics, mathematics, and oriental languages, he was released from these duties so that he could have freedom in his studies and pursue formal scientific research, especially in southern Italy. . and sicily. he took advantage of a trip to malta to fully explore the various volcanoes that exist between naples and that island. he especially studied in 1638 the strait of messina, where, in addition to the noise of the tidal wave, a dull subterranean rumble attracted his attention. In Trapani and Palermo, the remains of antediluvian elephants aroused his interest. but first of all he tried to discover the subterranean power of the volcanoes of etna and stromboli, then in eruption; the terrifying eruption of Vesuvius in 1630 had drawn public attention to such mysterious phenomena.
when kircher left messina in 1638 to return to naples, a terrible earthquake occurred that destroyed the city of euphemia. Like Pliny before him (AD 79), Kircher wanted to study this powerful convulsion of nature up close. Arriving in Naples, he immediately climbed Vesuvius, and was lowered by means of a rope into the crater of the volcanic mountain, and with the help of his pantometer, found out exactly the different dimensions of the crater and its internal structure. as scoops of his travels he published, for the knights of malta, “specula melitensis encyclical sive syntagma novum instrumentorum physico-mathematicorum ” (messina, 1638). Forty years later, the fully mature results of these investigations appear in Kircher’s great work, the “mundus subterraneus”, in two volumes (Amsterdam, 1678), which enjoyed the greatest reputation of its time; it not only gave an incentive to the more minute investigation of subterranean forces, but contributed much to its final explanation. When back in Rome, Kircher began collecting all kinds of antiquities and ethnologically important remains, thus laying the foundation for the well-known museum, which, like the “Kircherianum Museum,” still attracts so many visitors to the Roman College today. Kircher’s work in the field of deciphering hieroglyphs also marked an era and, in the excavation of the so-called pamphylian obelisk, he managed to correctly provide the parts that had been hidden from him. it must be remembered that little or no attention was paid to this subject in those days, so it was in itself a great service to have taken the lead in this branch of inquiry, lacking as his efforts may have been in the fundamental principles of science as it is known today. Kircher also gave impetus to the intimate study of the relationships between different languages: Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Chaldean, Syrian, Samaritan, Arabic, Armenian, Coptic, Persian, Ethiopian, Italian, German, Spanish, French, Portuguese.
thus, in the most varied branches of science, kircher played the role of pioneer. even medicine received his attention, as shown for example by his treatise, “scrutinium physico-medicum contagiosæ luis, quæ pestis dicitur ” (rome, 1658). he also tried to form a universal language ( “polygraphia seu artificium lingarum, quo cum omnibus totius mundi populis poterit quis correspondenre “, rome, 1663). His scientific activities led him to maintain scientific correspondence with scholars working in the most different fields, as the numerous volumes of his extant letters show. it is to his inventive mind that we owe one of the first of our counting machines: the speaking tube and the Aeolian harp were perfected by him. he was also the inventor of the magic lantern which has since been perfected and is almost indispensable today.
That the most varied judgments would be formed and expressed about a man of such encyclopedic knowledge was to be expected. he tried to find a grain of truth even in the false sciences of alchemy, astrology and horoscopy, which were still in vogue in his time, and it is not surprising that in the province of astronomy he did not advocate at this early date the Copernican system.
With all his learning and the great amount of adulation he received from all sides, Kircher retained throughout his life a profound humility and childlike piety. in 1629 he had hinted to his general his desire to dedicate his life exclusively to spreading the faith in china, but this wish was not fulfilled and, to console himself for this disappointment, he erected during his last years a sanctuary (della mentorella) in honor of of the mother of god atop monte sabino near rome, where, during her lifetime as now, thousands made pilgrimages and found help and solace. Kircher’s heart was entombed in this sanctuary, and at the beginning of the 20th century this place of pilgrimage was distinguished by a gigantic statue of our divine redeemer on the neighboring crest of Guadagnole.
To give an approximate idea of Kircher’s literary activity, it is only necessary to point out that during his stay in Rome, no less than forty-four folio volumes came from his pen. A complete list of his writings can be found in sommervogel, “bibl. scriptorum s.j. “. in addition to the works already named, it is enough to mention here: “magnes sive de arte magnetica” (rome, 1640; colony, 1643, 1654); “lingua ægyptiaca restituta” (rome, 1643); “ars magna lucis et umbræ” (rome, 1644); “musurgia universalis sive ars consoni et dissoni” (rome, 1650); “itinerarium ecstaticum s. opificium coeleste” (rome, 1656); “iter extaticum secundum, mundi subterranei prodromus” (rome, 1657); “obeliscus pamphylius” (rome, 1650).