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Welcome to my page about Athanasius Kircher!

January 13, 2008. Added a translation of a description of a parabolic spotlight from Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae

This webpage has, believe it or not, been updated on January 7, 2008. The update consists of a new, database powered link index, called Kircherianum Virtuale. This site still contains a translation of a letter from Kircher to Prince Carl Gustaf ( cousin of Queen Christina and her successor as King Carl X Gustaf) of Sweden, that I have found in The National Archive in Stockholm, a MIDI-transcription of a ricercar for automatic instruments from Musurgia Universalis and an attempted translation of an article from Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae, concerning The Magic Lantern.

A very short biography of this interesting 17th century author, scientist and inventor will pop up if you click on the portrait.

Letter to Prince Carl Gustaf

This is the only letter by Kirchers hand that, as far as I know, exists in Sweden. It's obvious that he wrote several letters to Queen Christina while she still lived in Sweden, but none of them seems to have survived in Swedish archives, and we don't know anything about their fate. This letter, though, has survived in a collection of documents from the Stegeborg Castle. It has accompanied a dedicated copy of Musurgia Universalis, a gift from Kircher to the prince. There is a translation and a picture of the original available.

Ricercata pro instrumentis automatis

This little three-part ricercar comes from Kirchers encyclopedic work about music, Musurgia Universalis, published in Rome in 1650. The piece was intended as a programming example for those who where interested in learning how to program the automatic organs that Kircher described in the book. The program was written on paper and then transferred to a metal cylinder, called cylindrus phonotacticus, that controlled the instrument. It was also intended as a demonstration of the capabilities of automatic instruments, with syncopations and short note-values. It's possible that it was composed with the help of another device described in the book, the Arca Musurgica, a logic device that could help its user to compose or arrange music in both contrapunctal and homophonic settings. MIDI seems to have its predecessors...

About the construction of The Magic Lantern or The Sorcerers Lamp.

Different forms of projecting devices have been in use since the Middle Ages (or maybe even earlier). Best known of these early experiments are perhaps the projecting "crystal balls" (i.e. sphaeric lenses with a "prodigious sign" or something the like painted on them), that Giovanni Della Porta described in his Magia Naturalis from the latter half of the sixteenth century. Parabolic mirrors with a picture painted on the surface were also in use, as well as "hole" projectors and lanterns that could produce shadows on walls.

In 1646, however, Kircher published the first edition of his Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae, a work on light and optics, where he among many things also described a projecting device, equipped with a focusing lens and a mirror, either flat or parabolic. This was obviously a new construction, and he also proudly declared that "this is completly our own invention, and I cannot remember that I ever have read about anything like it". As Kircher usually gave credits to inventors, if they were known, this is most likely to be true. The projector, or Steganographic Mirror, as Kircher called it, used sunlight as lightsource. Kircher also made a very brief description of a primitive method to use artificial light for projection. This projector wasn't very practical, though, but in about 15 years time it developed into what has become known as Laterna Magica, The Magic Lantern. Most of this development seems to have been done at the university of Leyden by two scientists, working independently of each other. One of them was the famous physicist Christiaan Huygens, who described his version of the lantern in some letters to a friend, but didn't do much more to publish his invention. The other inventor, on the other hand, the Danish scientist and engineer Thomas Walgensten, did not only realize the technical and artistic possibilities of the device, but also its economic potential, and toured across Europe to demonstrate and sell his lanterns.

In a new edition of Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae, published in 1671, Kircher commented the similarities and differences between his own construction and Walgenstens and also gave a detailed, but sometimes a bit confusing, description of the new lantern. This article, De Lucernae Magicae seu Thaumaturgae constructione, is the one translated here. You will also find, in Note 1, a short description of Kirchers own construction from 1646. (If you understand any of the Scandinavian languages, and these things interest you, you can find my complete Swedish translation of Cryptologia Nova, Kirchers first treatise on projectors from 1646, in the Swedish section of this page. An English version will be available some time in the future.)

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