Audible realities and phonic fantasies: The first major book on acoustics

Audible realities and phonic fantasies: The first major book on acoustics

Three bell shaped ceiling appendages lead into three different rooms with people talking in each room

A building very subtly designed for eavesdropping. From the Niels Bohr Library & Archives’ copy of Phonurgia nova by Athanasius Kircher. (Book 1 Section IV page 90)

Before there were walkie talkies, there was Athanasius Kircher. In 1673, Kircher published  Phonurgia nova : sive Conjugium mechanico-physicum artis & naturae paranympha phonosophia concinnatum (1673), which is chock-full of inventive ways to transmit sound. The Niels Bohr Library & Archives recently acquired a beautiful copy of this work.

Two men sit opposite each other with a large elliptical pod-looking device with holes by each person's mouth

Kircher's Ellipsis Otica (or Elliptical Ears), a form of ear trumpet that used the elliptical shape of the inner tube to amplify sound and allow a whispered message from one end (B.V.) to be heard by someone else on the other side (S.C.). Phonurgia nova, Book 1 Section VII pg. 160

Athanasius Kircher, know-it-all

Before we take a dive into this book, we have to talk about Kircher. Acoustics was only one of Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher’s (1602-1680) scholarly pursuits. He contributed to an incredibly diverse array of fields, including medicine, Chinese cultural studies, geology, linguistics, anthropology, astrology, mathematics, optics, music, and many more, with over 40 books, a museum, and many inventions and curiosities to his name. His office and personal museum, Museo Kircheriano, in which he displayed a collection of curiosities and manuscripts from around the world, was a must-see for any scholar coming through Rome. As well as being a Renaissance-era “Renaissance man” in the sense that he studied many different fields, he was also a man of his time in that he embraced both the scientific method and his religion.[1] He was part of the Society of Jesus and spoke often of how he had been saved by God throughout his life. He survived multiple calamities: he recovered from being swept under a water mill, survived a bout of gangrene (usually a death sentence), and recovered from falling into the frozen Rhine river while escaping Lutheran soldiers. This incredible life begs the question: how good was Kircher at all of these pursuits? With such a wide scope of interests, what did Kircher contribute to scientific knowledge, especially acoustics?

A man stands at a distance from seven stone dividers. The word Clamore is shouted and each further divider has less of the word present, ex. Clamore, Amore, more, ore, re

How much of the word “Clamore” (Latin for “shout”) would you hear at each point? "Echum Hetaphonam" (borrowed from Greek) translates to the seven-fold or seven-time-sounding echo. From Phonurgia nova, Book 1 Section II, page 47

Kircher on acoustics

Book with a white vellum cover and clasps

Niels Bohr Library & Archives’ copy of Phonurgia nova. Note the clasps!

Let’s take a look at the book in question. Phonurgia nova : sive Conjugium mechanico-physicum artis & naturae paranympha phonosophia concinnatum (1673) was the first book printed in Europe that is solely about musical and room acoustics. (In English, the short title, Phonurgia nova, translates to "A New Modality of Sound Production.”) Because it was the first of its kind, and because of Kircher’s prominence as a scholar at the time, Phonurgia nova’s publication gave the field of acoustics a boost of legitimacy and importance. Though the book was aimed at scholars, its gorgeous illustrations of acoustical curiosities, such as trumpets in odd shapes, talking statues, eavesdropping devices, and new ways to amplify sounds in rooms, made it a great “coffee table” book and point of interest in a well-appointed library. It was therefore also enjoyed by rich noblemen, who then became more aware of and interested in acoustics. There is an interesting mixture of science for the advancement of the field and science for entertainment present in this work, as with many of his other books.


Three differently-shaped tubas suspended in a building: Tubus Ellipticus, Tubus Conicus, and Tubus Cochleat

Tuba time in Phonurgia nova: Tubus Ellipticus, Tubus Conicus, and Tubus Cochleat

A very slitheringly shaped tuba

Tubus Ssssssserpentinus! Book 1 Section VII page 134

On the more scholarly and science-y side of things, the book was written partially as a response to Samuel Morland, who claimed to be the first to invent the megaphone, or tuba stentorophonica, in the January 1672 issue of Philosophical Transactions. Kircher had in fact already written about a megaphone device or “speaking trumpet” in his 1650 book Musurgia Universalis and used one for many years to call people to the local shrine for services. Phonurgia nova references and expands on Musurgia Universalis, which explained megaphones and predated Morland’s article by decades, as a kind of nudge to show that Kircher was there first.

The megaphone is clearly a win for Kircher, and by responding to Moreland, Kircher widened the scholarly discourse on acoustics. Kircher’s incredible room and building illustrations also show that he knew that the shape of a room would determine its acoustical qualities. For example, he studied a room in an elliptical shape, and correctly surmised that this shape is one of the best for hearing the human voice; in an ellipse, “every outgoing straight line from a focus will be directed to the other focus.”[2]

Illustration in Phonurgia nova showing two people talking in a room with an ellipsoidal-shaped ceiling

Illustration in Phonurgia nova showing two people talking in a room with an ellipsoidal-shaped ceiling. Book 1 Section IV page 99

Where was Kircher wrong about acoustics? Well, he did not understand that sound is a wave, although Galileo had already surmised as much. Kircher attempted a “bell in a vacuum” experiment for the book Musurgia Universalis, in which one puts a bell in a container, rings the bell, and then seals the container and pumps out air to create a vacuum. The sound will decrescendo and eventually go silent as air is pumped out of the vacuum. Kircher could still hear his bell, but this was probably due to a faulty vacuum.

Illustration shows musicians playing in the room of a building with a large device pumping the music outdoors

One more Kircher acoustical design for you. No microphone needed! Book I Section VII page 143

Kircher on Egyptology

Back to our question: how good was Kircher at all of his various pursuits? For comparison’s sake, let’s first take a look at his contributions to another of his academic fields: Egyptology. He believed that he cracked the code on hieroglyphics. He had some interesting (read: wrong) theories about them; according to historian Daniel Stolzenberg in the article “Athanasius Kircher and the Hieroglyphic Sphinx,” “Kircher interpreted the hieroglyphs by comparing Egyptian inscriptions with evidence from other traditions that supposedly preserved elements of the ‘hieroglyphic doctrine,’” which included religions from Mexico, Japan, Greece, and finally, relating it all to Christianity. His reputation was such that his contemporaries accepted these conclusions (though later ones were skeptical), but as we know, he was quite wrong about his reading of hieroglyphics. Hieroglyphics were not correctly understood until 1822, when Jean Francois Champollion used the Rosetta Stone to surmise that hieroglyphics use a phonetic rather than a pictorial system. As a side note, polymath Thomas Young (1773-1829), who we’ve written about before for his book on optics, was a bitter rival of Champollion and published Account of the Recent Discoveries in Hieroglyphic Literature and Egyptian Antiquities in 1823, a year after Champollion’s work.

Kircher also hypothesized that ancient Egyptian is the ancestor of Coptic, the language historically spoken by Copts in Egypt starting around the third century CE and eventually replaced by Arabic. Kircher was correct about Coptic!

Athanasius Kircher, know-it-all?

To answer our initial question: was Kircher actually good at everything? I think we can safely say that although he might not have been right about everything, his contributions to early modern science are undeniable.

One tuba suspended on a tripod thing, one large horn-shaped tuba, and one circular tuba

Three more tubas for the road!

*Special thanks to Karina Cooper for help with images, Latin translation, and page citations.


Berg, Richard E. 2024. “Early Experimentation.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. Accessed April 18.

Buonanno, Roberto. 2014. The Stars of Galieo Galilei and the Universal Knowledge of Athanasius Kircher. Springer, Rome.

Cosmic Polymath. 2022. “Athanasius Kircher, Dude of Wonders.” Youtube. Podcast episode.

Merrill, Brian L. 1989.  Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), Jesuit Scholar: An exhibition of his works in the Harold B. Lee Library collections at Brigham Young University. Published by Friends of the Birgham Young University Library, Provo, Utah.

Tronchin, Lamberto. January 2009. “Athanasius Kircher’s Phonurgia Nova: The Marvelous World of Sound during the 17th Century.” Acoustics Today 5 (1): 8. doi:10.1121/1.3120723.


[1] Merrill.

[2] Tronchin.

About the Author

Corinne Mona

Corinne Mona

Corinne Mona is the Head Editor of the Ex Libris Universum blog. She is also a Librarian at the Niels Bohr Library & Archives. In addition to a master's degree in library & information science, she also holds advanced degrees in music performance and French. Here at the Niels Bohr Library and Archives, she wrangles books and journals by cataloging, shifting, buying, and promoting them. Corinne considers herself a librarian flutist or flutist librarian depending on the day, as she is also a professional musician and flute teacher. Outside of work, she also loves reading, baking, and studying animals, especially true seals.  One of her favorite books from the library is Women Spacefarers by Umberto Cavallero.

Caption: Astronaut Catherine Coleman is featured in the book Women Spacefarers. She played this traditional Irish flute and tin whistle in space on St. Patrick’s Day in 2011 at the International Space Station. Photo is public domain through NASA.

See all articles by Corinne Mona

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