Like many devotees of the seventeenth-century polymath Robert Hooke, I was thrilled by the launch earlier this year of the online database of his library, Hooke’s Books. Astronomer, horologist, architect and much else besides, Hooke was a manic presence in the scientific revolution taking place in Restoration London, whose practical gifts have only recently started to receive the recognition they deserve.

He was also an avid book-collector. When he died in 1703, his vast collection (comprising 2,678 volumes) was sold at auction and a catalogue was prepared and published, the Bibliotheca Hookiana. For people like me, who are interested in the prompts for his scientific activity, it is an extremely valuable source. The early Royal Society presented an image of scientific practice, according to which the investigator is free to ignore received wisdom, in order to focus intently on the truths of nature: Nullius in verba (take no man’s word for it), as the Society’s motto has it.

In theory, Robert Hooke’s library offers a means of challenging this picture. It reveals the ideas that he was building on and those that he was seeking to discredit. It highlights the extent to which his thoughts were shaped as much by books as by things. Unfortunately, it has hitherto proved extremely difficult to access. The catalogue is lengthy and titles are arranged by language (Latin, Italian etc.) and by size of book (folio, quarto etc.), rather than by subject-area. I cannot be the only interested party to have given up wading through such references as Clement. Alexandr. Op. Gr. & Lat. a Frid. Sylburgio. Colon. 1687. Digitising Hooke’s books, then, is an extremely valuable thing to do: thanks to the efforts of the website’s creators Will Poole, Felicity Henderson and Yelda Nasifoglu, we are now able to search the catalogue for works that we think may be there.

As part of the research for my PhD thesis, I spent considerable time in the Royal Society library trying to track the development of some of Hooke’s optical theories. One of the things I looked at was the description in Micrographia, published in 1665, of what he calls ‘inflection’ – the idea that the passage of light in the atmosphere is continually refracted into a curve by the difference in air pressure at different altitudes – which I traced to similar comments in Robert Boyle’s Spring of the Air of 1660. Boyle and Hooke are known to have collaborated on this book, so the idea that a passage in it may have inspired Hooke’s later thoughts about inflection is not particularly surprising. There is, however, something surprising about the passage in question; Boyle writes:

‘that is also very memorable to this purpose, which I remember I have somewhere read in a Book of the Ingenious Kircherus, who giving a pertinent admonition concerning the various refractions that may happen in the Air, relates, That during his stay in Malta, he often saw Mount Ætna, though the next day, notwithstanding its being extremely clear, he could not see it; adding, that Vintemillius, a very Learned Person, did oftentimes, from a Hill he names, behold the whole Island he calls Luprica protuberant above the Sea, though at other times, notwithstanding a clear Sky, he could not see it’

The first surprising thing about these comments is the fact that Boyle references a written authority (who references another). The second is that the authority in question is the German-speaking Jesuit philosopher Athanasius Kircher. In her preface to a collection of essays on Kircher, Paula Findlen summarises the response when she first told people in the mid-1980s that she was working on this enigmatic figure: ‘that crazy polymath, that strange Jesuit – the man who got everything wrong’.


Athanasius Kircher, from the frontispiece of the Royal Society’s copy of ‘Mundus subterraneus’ (3rd ed. – Amsterdam: apud Joannem Janssonium a Waesberge, 1678)


The subtitle to the essay collection – The Last Man Who Knew Everything – is a coy nod to Kircher’s popular image: for most non-specialists, he belongs to the world of Renaissance encyclopaedists, men who carefully collected and arranged knowledge, with little concern for its utility, or even veracity. He is, in other words, not exactly an obvious source for members of the early Royal Society.

Above, I quoted from Michael Hunter and Edward B. Davis’s edition of Boyle’s complete works (vol. 1, pp. 203-4). In a footnote, the editors direct their readers to Kircher’s Ars magna lucis et umbrae of 1646, a book that is worth taking a look at just for its extraordinary frontispiece, as seen here in a copy in the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel.

In this book, Kircher certainly discusses the refraction of light in the atmosphere (among other things), but I couldn’t find anything corresponding to Boyle’s comments about seeing and not seeing Mount Etna from Malta, nor any mention of Vintemillius. Perhaps Boyle attributed to Kircher an anecdote that did not, in fact, belong to him, or perhaps the anecdote simply appears in another of the thirteen books that Kircher had published before 1660.

On this point, Hooke’s Books is not all that much help; the catalogue features three pre-1660 Kircher volumes – the Prodromus coptus of 1636, the 1643 second edition of Magnes, and the 1659 Leipzig edition of the Scrutinium physico-medicum – but I couldn’t find anything corresponding to Boyle’s comments in these works either.

Hooke’s Books does, however, help to make a larger point about Kircher’s (perhaps surprising) importance for members of the early Royal Society. Typing ‘Kircher’ into the database brings back 12 results; ten works by him and one each by his admirers Quirinus Kuhlmann and Gaspar Schott. It is difficult to know what the Society’s Fellows thought about some of the stranger aspects of Kircher’s work: the idea in the Ars magna, for example, that the luminescent liquid in a glowworm could be used as an invisible ink, for messages that only become legible in the dark. (I can imagine Hooke commenting that the scheme would require quite a lot of glowworms.) What seems clear, though, is that – for Robert Hooke at least – Athanasius Kircher was not ‘the man who got everything wrong’.


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