Athanasius Kircher | Vol. 2 / No. 43.4

A 1643 edition of Kircher's Magnes, Photo: Richard Ford Burley
A 1643 edition of Kircher’s Magnes, Photo: Richard Ford Burley

From the “I found it at work” and “the history of science is kind of funny” files.


Athanasius Kircher was a Jesuit polymath from the seventeenth century, and, if we’re being honest, he thought he knew a lot more than he did. He’s been described both as “the last man who knew everything” and “a man of misconceptions.” If you’re a fan of undeciphered manuscripts of dubious origin, you may recognize him as the man to whom the Voynich Manuscript was allegedly sent for translation in 1666 (if, of course, the Voynich Manuscript even existed in 1666). He spent a great deal of time theorizing about a wide variety of topics — for instance on the dimensions of Noah’s Ark, and on the related necessity for modern species to be the result of hybridization (i.e. camel + leopard = giraffe) if they were all to fit and still produce today’s biodiversity — many of which seem patently absurd today. To most of us, anyway.

But let’s not write him off as totally mad; he did invent what seems to me to be the first system for remixing music. Seriously: the Arca Musarithmica was designed to allow non-musicians to create new hymns by rearranging old ones. Like FruityLoops, 17th-century style.

What I managed to get a look at this week was a 1643 edition of Kircher’s (1641) Magnes, sive de Arte Magnetica, a treatise on magneticism. The full title is… a bit lengthy. In translation it reads: The Magnet; Or, The Art of Magnetics, in Three Parts, in Which the Universal Nature of the Magnet as Well as Its Use in All Arts and Sciences Is Explained by a New Method: In Addition, Here Are Revealed Through All Kinds of Physical, Medical, Chemical, and Mathematical Experiments Many Hitherto Unknown Secrets of Nature From the Powers and Prodigious Effects of Magnetic as Well as Other Concealed Motions of Nature in the Elements, Stones, Plants, Animals, and Enlightening ThingsIn it, he details observations of the Earth’s magnetic field, describes designs for a magnetic clock, and sides with Tycho Brahe over Copernicus.

While much of what he wrote proved ultimately to be wrong, we ought not to be too hard on him. There are plenty of people in history who looked at data and came to erroneous conclusions (Kepler thought that the planets orbited the Sun in elliptical orbits because of the Sun’s magnetism, for instance). Who knows, some of the more prominent scientists alive today could end up being little more than footnotes in a few hundred years.

But Kircher will probably still be wrong about Noah’s Ark.


Richard Ford Burley is a writer, library worker, and doctoral candidate in English at Boston College, where he’s studying remix culture and the processes that generate texts. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, and feminism (and long-dead pseudo-scientists) here at This Week In Tomorrow.