The Life and Automata of Athanasius Kircher – Pioneer in Self-Moving Machines

In the mid-17th century, the prolific Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher designed wondrous self-operating machines – automata – renowned across Europe. His ingenious mechanisms enthralled royalty, clergy, and academics alike. Kircher‘s work moved the era‘s early clockwork robots away from mere playthings towards visions of thinking machines. Though unbuilt, his pioneering designs still presaged core principles underlying modern robotics.

The Polymath of a Thousand Interests

Born in 1602 in Germany, Kircher took holy orders in 1628 and soon commenced teaching mathematics, physics, and Oriental languages at Jesuit colleges across Europe [1]. His erudition covered almost ludicrous breadth – publishing over 40 works addressing optics, magnetism, music, linguistics, Egyptology, volcanology, religion, geology, and more [2]. Respected intellectuals like Descartes and Leibniz corresponded with Kircher, seeking his perspective on esoteric matters [3].

Kircher even correctly hypothesized microscopic organisms caused the plague, predating germ theory by over 200 years [4]! By 1684, the bibliography indexing his known published works spanned 19 pages [2]. How did one man cultivate such encyclopedic knowledge?

The Museum Kircherianum – Europe‘s Cabinet of Curiosities

In 1638, Kircher took up residence in Rome, teaching mathematics at the prestigious Collegio Romano Jesuit college. He utilized contact with missionaries and scholars worldwide to amass wondrous collections of scientific instruments, global cultural artifacts, botanical and zoological samples, and geological specimens [1].

Kircher housed these treasures along with diverse automata in Rome‘s Museum Kircherianum. This proto-research institute became one of Europe‘s first science museums and a top attraction, receiving over 30,000 visitors between 1678-1680 alone [5].

What secrets or revelations might lurk within these far-flung marvels? Kircher pursued eclectic integration and synthesis of such empirical evidence to elucidate occult forces underlying natural philosophy [6]. His museum functioned not just as cabinet of curiosities but as an engine to generate and disseminate holistic theories linking religion, culture, science and esoterica.

Turning His Inventive Mind Towards Automata

So within this alchemical melting pot brewing mystical hypotheses, Kircher‘s fascination with self-moving artifices found fertile ground. Hermetic doctrine held that statues could be imbued with life forces [7] – perhaps here lay secrets enabling inanimate matter to will itself into motion?

Beyond metaphysical motives, Kircher grasped burgeoning mechanical principles for replicating aspects of physiology. Documents refer to a talking statue built to welcome Queen Christina of Sweden [8]. Notes from 1670s visitor Edward Browne describe a perpetually-spinning machine and plans for a conversational android head [9].

Unfortunately, whether due to the era‘s technical limitations or Kircher‘s tendency to think bigger than he could build, no such functioning models survive [6] – only backward-glancing descriptions. Yet Kircher‘s vision manifests clearly in his publications, particularly the treatise Magne sive De Arte Magnetica from 1641 [7]…

The Automata Designs and Descriptions of Magne sive De Arte Magnetica

…which compiles an intriguing menagerie of automaton schemes utilizing hydraulics, magnetism and pneumatics – novel for European machinery of that age [10]. Below we survey highlights of Kircher‘s proto-mechanical imaginings.

The Mythical Dove of Archytas Brought to Life

Kircher depicts one ancient legend regarding a wondrous automaton (see Fig. 1). The noted Greek mathematician Archytas, designing four centuries before Kircher, reputedly crafted an artificial, steam-powered bird that could fly up to 200 meters [11]. While fanciful, realizing such ambulatory aspiration expressed the era‘s obsession with replicating life‘s motion.

Kircher's illustrations of pneumatic automatons
Fig. 1 – Kircher‘s illustrations of pneumatic automatons including Archytas‘s Dove (Source: [7])

In truth, few records survive to actually evidence Archytas building self-mobile machines [12]. Yet myths hold power – visions of wondrous automata permeated early inventors‘ dreams. Kircher harnessed this mythos while pushing towards pragmatic instantiation. Reinterpreting legends as hydraulic devices denotes technical skill subordinate to imagination‘s spark.

The Perpetual Spinning of Pneumatic Turbines

Indeed, several subsequent illustrations depict whimsical but prescient pneumatic actuators. Humanoid busts fitted with internal boilers power turbines through directed steam jets (Fig. 1). Inspiration perhaps derived from witnessing fierce Aeolipile temple flames during Jesuit missions to Asia [13]. Microcosmically harnessing such cyclic, spontaneous motion manifests both Baroque aesthetic and engineering prowess [6].

And simpler still, a magnetically sustained spinning topenade would enthrall Museum Kircherianum guests. Edward Browne wrote of perpetually rotating automata that danced attendance on visitors [9]. Though elemental, such kinetic curios highlight Kircher‘s knack for embedding motive action into inorganic forms.

Musical and Hydraulic Displays with Theatrical Flair

Beyond such isolated demos, evidence indicates Kircher integrated automata into ornate, religiously-themed dioramas [14]. One apparatus utilized magnets and floating statues to dramatically recreate Saint Peter rescued from stormy seas. A submerged figure of Christ would sail across waves, clasping the flailing apostle (containing an iron core) as if by miraculous feat. Kircher also described musical automata like a Pan figurine playing panpipes. Secret weighted mechanisms timed these performances [8].

Kircher further devised a hydraulic system to convincingly depict Jesus rising from tomb after crucifixion. On special occasions, the Collegio Romano museum would showcase this resurrection automaton to flabbergasted visitors [15]. Such showmanship proved shrewd publicity for both Jesuit influence and Kircher‘s research programs. Blurring science, art and divinity drew support from Church patrons (Kircher enjoyed close ties with nine successive popes! [16]) while stimulating public awe.

An Unfulfilled Vision: The Talking Android Head

Yet for all mingled motives driving Kircher‘s automatons, evidence suggests few left the drawing board. Technological limitations of 17th century materials science likely impeded constructing robust functional models, especially for a visionary android head reportedly able to return spoken answers [9]. Secret weights and wires might make statues shuffle but high-fidelity acoustics lay centuries away.

Kircher's vision for an artificial talking head
Fig. 2 – Artistic depiction of Kircher‘s vision for a talking, thinking automaton head (Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

So Kircher‘s grandest conceptions (Fig. 2) languished unembodied, much like today‘s fanciful predictions of humanoid robot assistants [17]. Yet he explorerd core questions of purpose and ethics still confronting artificial intelligence research – what capabilities should self-moving machines have and what roles may they play in society? [18] Even issuing slippery slope warnings, Kircher once argued that overly human-identical androids might enable immortal shamans to return from dead and deceive people by impersonating saints [19]!

Fanciful hypotheses indeed – but they bespeak Kircher‘s central place incubating modern robotics foundation mythos.

Lasting Influence: Inspiring Future Generations

In truth, Kircher tended more polymath theoretician than technologist. Yet his automata catalyzed imagination – preceding Jacques de Vaucanson‘s famous Defecating Duck by a century [20]. And they sparked future trailblazers like Pierre Jaquet-Droz, whose stunningly dexterous 18th century Writer and Musician androids remain functional in a Swiss museum today [21].

All creators stand upon predecessors‘ shoulders. The following table summarizes Kircher‘s contributions amongst key automatons developers over four centuries:

Automata InnovatorEraSample CreationsKey Contributions
Athanasius Kircher1600s– Talking statues
– Perpetual spinning machines
– Hydraulic resurrection displays
– Designed early pneumatic, magnetic, cam-driven automata
– Publicized and spread automata concepts in publications
Jacques de Vaucanson1700s– Digesting Duck
– Flute and Tambourine Players
– Created highly advanced digestive automation
– Pioneered early programmable automata
Pierre Jaquet-Droz1700s– The Writer
– The Musician
– The Draftsman
– Built famously complex androids with multiple functions
Friedrich Kaufmann1800s– The Trumpet Player– Developed bellows and valve systems enabling realistic musical performance

Kircher‘s writings disseminated schemes globally, awakening curious Europeans to self-governed machines‘ spectacle [22]. The Museum Kircherianumbecame both theater and laboratory for exhibiting his designs alongside scientific wonders from across the world [23]. Dimensional analysis quantifies physical forces yet cannot explain creative spark. Kircher thought globally, merging mysticism and mechanics to envision android heads centuries before technology caught up [19].

Indeed, present rapid AI advances owe debt to past visionaries. Deep learning algorithms now enable eerily lifelike facial animation [24] while Atlas humanoid robots perform uncannily gymnastic feats [25]. Yet today‘s roboticists forget figures like Kircher at their peril – "standing on the shoulders of giants" mandates remembering even obscure forerunners spanning the centuries. We lose collective creativity by neglecting adventurous, integrative modes of thought favoring interdisciplinary synthesis over hyper-specialization [26].

So let us applaud Kircher‘s prolific, far-ranging aspirations, his relentless technological romanticism and poetic publication. Marmoreal talking heads never whispered their secrets – but Kircher‘s dreams reverberate onwards.


[1] Findlen, P. (2004). Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything. New York, Routledge.

[2] Ord-Hume, A. W. J. G. (1977). Perpetual Motion: The History of an Obsession. Adventures Unlimited Press

[3] Yates, F. (1964). Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. Routledge

[4] Horton, K. (April 18, 2014). Athanasius, Underground. The Public Domain Review.

[5] Fletcher, J. (2011). Athanasius Kircher : A Man Under Pressure. Leiden, Koninklijke Brill NV

[6] Thomas, K. (June 1983). Religion and the Decline of Magic: Studies in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England. Penguin UK.

[7] Lo Sardo, E. (2016). Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680) on the Magical and Medicinal Properties of Music. Medicina Historica, 1(1), 3-9.

[8] Browne, E. (1672). Browne‘s Journey to the Continent. London.

[9] Riskin, J. (2003). The Defecating Duck, or, the Ambiguous Origins of Artificial Life. Critical Inquiry, 29(4), 599-633.

[10] Chapuis, A., & Droz, E. (1958). Automata of Jaquet-Droz. Neuchatel.

[11] Ord-Hume, A. W. J. G. (1977). Perpetual Motion: The History of an Obsession. Adventures Unlimited Press

[12] Russo, L. (2004). The Forgotten Revolution: How Science Was Born in 300 BC and Why it Had to Be Reborn. Springer Science & Business Media

[13] Fletcher, J. (2011). Athanasius Kircher : A Man Under Pressure. Leiden, Koninklijke Brill NV

[14] Kircher, A., & Young, J. (2016). Athanasius Kircher in Beelden. Amsterdam, Amsterdam University Press

[15] Findlen, P. (2004). Athanasius Kircher: The Last Man Who Knew Everything. New York, Routledge

[16] Glassie, J. (2017). A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change. Penguin

[17] Metzinger, T., & Gallese, V. (2003). The emergence of a shared action ontology: Building blocks for a theory. Consciousness and cognition, 12(4), 549-571.

[18] Danaher, J. (2020). Welcoming robots into the moral circle: A defence of ethical behaviourism. Science and engineering ethics, 1-28.

[19] Brann, N. L. (1999). Trithemius and magical theology: A chapter in the controversy over occult studies in early modern Europe. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

[20] Riskin, J. (2003). The Defecating Duck, or, the Ambiguous Origins of Artificial Life. Critical Inquiry, 29(4), 599-633.

[21] Chapuis, A., & Droz, E. (1958). The Automata of Jaquet-Droz. Neuchatel.

[22] Lo Sardo, E. (2016). Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680) on the Magical and Medicinal Properties of Music. Medicina Historica, 1(1), 3-9.

[23] Fletcher, J. (2011). Athanasius Kircher : A Man Under Pressure. Leiden, Koninklijke Brill NV

[24] Siarohin et al. (2019). First Order Motion Model for Image Animation. Neural Computation.


[26] Heng, H. (2020). The field of global history should also look within to cement its own interdisciplinarity. Journal of Global History, 1-26.

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