Highlight from the stacks: Kircher’s Tower of Babel (1679)
I’ve been doing some work in the stacks lately with our interns and have been focusing some attention on our 17th century reserve collections (around 5,ooo volumes) which remain largely uncatalogued. This collection is one of our treasure troves and has recently received some cataloguing attention from the USTC interns who have been working with us this summer. As I have been browsing the stacks and familiarizing myself with the collection, I have noticed a great number of titles by Athanasius Kircher, whose Musurgia universalis was featured on this blog earlier this year. Although plenty has been written about him, I feel like I’m just getting to know Kircher through his books as I come across them in the stacks. I recently pulled his Turris Babel (Amsterdam: Jansson-Waesberge, 1679 — St Andrews r17f BS1238.B2K5) off of the shelves and was bowled over by the large, fold-out plate depicting his vision of the Tower of Babel. I wanted to share it here, simply because I was so wowed by it.
The Museum of Jurassic Technology describes Kircher’s Turris Babel: “The last of his books to be published during his lifetime, Turris Babel was Kircher’s attempt to reconstruct the specifics surrounding the famous biblical story, recounted in Genesis 10-11, of Nimrod’s attempt to build a tower that reached the heavens. Apart from his interest in ancient civilizations and biblical historicism, the story was of particular interest to Kircher as an account of the origin of languages, and, by Kircher’s extension, of polytheism. The second half of Turris is devoted to Kircher’s theories on linguistics. The first section, similar to his Arca Noë of four years earlier, contains an imaginative speculative expansion of the Tower of Babel story in light of Kircher’s knowledge of history, geography, and physics. This model (above) illustrates Kircher’s proof that Nimrod’s ambition was intrinsically flawed: in order to reach the nearest heavenly body; the Moon, the tower would have to be 178,672 miles high, comprised of over three million tons of matter. The uneven distribution of the Earth’s mass would tip the balance of the planet and move it from its position at the center of the universe, resulting in a cataclysmic disruption in the order of nature.”
Fantastic, eh? I love browsing our 17th century folio stacks to find books like this. Kircher was a true polymath and turned his mind to many different subjects. Our copy of the Turris Babel was purchased by D’Arcy W. Thompson in 1942 for his personal collection (as evidenced by the bookseller’s receipt being tipped-in to the front paste down, left). The University Library purchased a great number of Thompson’s books from his estate in 1951 and added them to its general collections. We are still finding books that used to be owned by this pioneering biologist in the Rare Books Collection and slowly a picture of Thompson-as-book-collector is emerging as well.