Athanasius Kircher (1601/2-1680) & his Phonurgia Nova

By H Dominic W Stiles, on 4 May 2018

Athanasius Kircher was born on the 2nd of May, but he himself was it seems unsure if it was 1601 or 2. He was yet another of those great polymaths of his age.  He may have had a certain arrogance, saying in one of his books,

Already about thirty years have passed since I brought out an explanation in my Prodromus Coptus of a certain Sino-Syrian monument discovered in China in 1625 A.D.  This earned considerable praise from intelligent readers, who were astonished by the novelty of its subject matter, but there was no lack of malicious, evil critics who attacked it with sarcastic arguments and many attempted corrections. All of these, however, were stupid or obtuse. (China Illustrata)

In his book, The Seashell on the Mountaintop (2003), Cutler says,

Kircher was a giant among seventeenth-century scholars. Straddling the divide between the expansive scholarship of the Renaissance and the focused data-collecting of the emerging scientific age, he was one of the last thinkers who could rightfully claim all knowledge as his domain. (Cutler, 2003 p.68)

He also says that Kircher, who turned up in Rome just after the Gallileo trial, was in some degree the church’s answer, making Rome again a centre of intellectual activity (p.69)

The wonderfully illustrated book we have is his Phonurgia nova, sive conjugium mechanico-physicum artis & natvrae paranympha phonosophia concinnatum (1673).    There is a lot about sound and acoustics and some of the illustrations are quite frequently reproduced.  Indeed, Glassie says it was “the first book in Europe devoted entirely to acoustics” (Galssie p.228).  He includes experiments, and shows how sound will travel around a dome – exactly the acoustic phenomena that is to be heard in the Whispering Gallery of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Certainly, some of his ideas were bizarre and strange and many wrong, but he was so prolific and interesting that it is not possible to do justice to him here.  He even had some nascent ideas about evolution.

Antonio Baldigiani wrote around 1678,

Poor old Father Kircher is sinking fast. He’s been deaf for more than a year, and has lost his sight and most of his memory. He rarely leaves his room except to go to the pharmacy or to the porter’s room. In short, we already consider him lost since he xcannot survive many more years. (Findlen, )

Findlen goes on to say that this was a litte exaggerated as he continued to write and indeed publish into the last year of his life.

He died on the 27th of November, 1680.

Cutler, Alan  The Seashell on the Mountaintop (2003).

Findlen, P., Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything (2004)

Glassie, John, Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change (


Phonurgia Nova

The Kircher Correspondence