If you visit the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, you’ll learn all about Athanasius Kircher, a 17th century German Jesuit scholar and alchemist whose lifelong fascination with the ancient East and the physical sciences made him an occult figure. Until recently, I thought Kircher was totally made up, like many of the figures in David Wilson’s cabinet of curiosities on Venice Boulevard. But, to my surprise, Kircher was indeed a real person, and of some repute.
He was considered by many to be the first true international scholar, and to this day is credited with founding the Western anthropological pseudoscience of Egyptology. Kircher was fascinated by heiroglyphics, and while his understanding of them (before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone) foundered on misconceptions, he developed some of the methodologies used by linguistic transcribers today.
Many of Kircher’s ideas about language were antiquated and Eurocentric; he believed that Egyptian heiroglyphics were superior to Chinese and Mesoamerican “pictographs”, because they represented “complex ideas” rather than objects. Nevertheless, some of his other writings offer perceptive insights into the physical world. He is considered a proto-evolutionist, and used a microscope as early as 1646 to discover that microorganisms caused the plague. He also invented a magnetic clock and a visual projection device similar to a Magic Lantern.
Although Kircher’s contributions were eclipsed by Rene Descartes toward the end of his life, recent scholarly interest in him has revived his name in academic circles. John Glassie’s 2012 biography, A Man of Misconceptions, is one useful and interesting source.