From the time I was really young, I carried around an excellent fact about my father: he’d once stood on the very top of the Washington Monument. On the pointy tip, on the outside. That was the notion that I grew up with. I remember having some trouble picturing the circumstances in which he might have done this. We lived in the Maryland suburbs of D.C. and so I often saw the monument out the car window on trips downtown. I think I felt some retroactive worry for his safety, and I wondered about his apparently incredible sense of balance, but the truth of the story was never in doubt. It came up casually in conversation. Questions were shrugged off, or maybe I was too young to understand. Apparently it had to do with his job.
Later on he told me more. My father was a young engineer involved with the 1934 renovation of the monument. (That’s not a typo: He was born in 1908, and he was fifty-three years old when I was born in 1961.) Scaffolding had been erected all around, and as part of the project the solid aluminum point that sits on the very top was removed for refurbishment, leaving a flat square of marble. My father gave me the impression that he actually stood, or stepped, on that square, about 555 feet off the ground, before the point was reset. Judging from pictures I’ve recently found of other men standing around it, I’m not totally sure about that. Even so I’m not any less impressed than I ever was. I always thought my father was a pretty goddamn cool guy.
If you’ve ever seen the movie Tucker, in which Jeff Bridges plays the can-do automobile designer who tried to compete with the Big Three carmakers, you might have sense of the romantic vision I have of my dad. I think of him as working with the Navy on new fire-extinguishing methods by day and going to black-tie parties by night. I haven’t fact-checked all the stories. But it’s my understanding, for example, that after World War II he helped some steel companies that used to make depth charges bring the metal beer keg into existence. He later went into business with the innovators of a hot dog vending machine and the developers of a tear-gas pen. My father had a basement workshop filled with the kind of equipment (propane torches, tubes and transistors, industrial-grade grinders, tiny watchmaker’s tools) with which it seemed he could build or fix anything. He made my brother a psychedelic light machine; he made me football cleats.
I didn’t think about my dad when I first read about the seventeenth-century Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher, which I must have done in Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, Lawrence Weschler’s now classic look at marvels, rarities, truth, and imagination. I wasn’t thinking about my father in 2005 when I first took home a bunch of books on Kircher in order to write a short essay about him for an annual called The Ganzfeld, now sadly defunct. But I did think Kircher was pretty goddamn cool.
Kircher told many stories about dangerous adventures he survived before arriving in Rome in the early 1630s to become one of the Europe’s most prominent intellectuals. Once he got there, he indulged his curiosity in almost every conceivable thing. Not content to publish more than thirty volumes on topics such as history, medicine, acoustics, cosmology, and linguistics, he had a workshop at the Jesuit college in Rome where for about forty years he developed optical devices, magnetic clocks, eavesdropping tubes, and even, allegedly, a “cat piano.” He also created a noted museum there featuring a talking statue, the tailbone of a mermaid, and a brick from tower of Babel. Kircher pursued his geological interests by climbing down inside the crater of Mount Vesuvius, and he was among the first to make observations with a smicroscopus, or microscope. He also was deeply involved in the restoration and re-erection of two Egyptian obelisks in Rome—the same kind of Egyptian obelisks on which the Washington Monument is modeled.
At the time, as I say, I wasn’t thinking about my dad, who had died in 1991. I did somehow feel that Kircher was my kind of subject. I can’t even exactly say that I wanted to write a book about him, because the prospect was pretty daunting. (Kircher published something like seven million words in Latin.) But I was fascinated and willing, and the more I found out about him, the more I felt like I was the person with no previous training as a historian to do it.
I don’t want to make too much of this connection. Kircher was a premodern man caught up in the middle of what’s now called the scientific revolution. My father was the product—if not the epitome—of the modern, mechanical age that the revolution ushered into being. Kircher believed in invisible energies, secret knots of cosmic influence, and the spontaneous generation of living things from nonliving matter. My father believed in American-made cars and the tensile strength of carpenter’s glue. But it did ultimately dawn on me that my soft spot for Kircher might have at least something to do with my soft spot for my own dad. And certain emotional strings got pulled when I had to start writing about Kircher’s decline later in life.
Kircher rose to become a famous figure in his time; he rubbed elbows with popes and he influenced, or confounded, people such as Descartes, Leibniz, Boyle, Hooke, and, I suggest, Newton. But towards the end of his life it became clear that many of his ideas (about, for instance, the hollowness of mountains) weren’t going meet the standards of the new science. He defended against those who challenged his status as the inventor of the speaking trumpet, now called the megaphone. He ghostwrote counterattacks against those who had debunked his claims about the magnetic healing power of the “snake stone.” And yet I think he sensed, before he died in 1680, that he would ultimately be forgotten.
Although my dad achieved a great deal of success over the years, he ended up with a lot less money and less contentment than he imagined he’d have. In his late seventies, even after a stroke left him with a bad arm and shaky walk, he was still going for the big idea. I remember him writing letters in crooked handwriting to an old inventor friend about a design for an electric car. When he died, my brothers and I went down into his workshop and botched our way through the process of building a wooden box for his ashes. In one of the many margarine tubs and jars he had there to hold springs and wire nuts and brads and fasteners, we found an old brass nameplate that said “Mr. Glassie” on it. We screwed it on there before turning it in to the funeral home to be loaded with his remains and interred.
After Kircher died, his body was buried in the crypt of the Jesuit church of Il Gesu in Rome, but he wanted his heart to be buried at the altar of the mountainside shrine of Mentorella, a remote church about twenty miles east that he’d somehow found the time to restore. His heart was wrapped in taffeta, placed in a little wooden box, and then carried up there in the pack of a mule. (I’m not sure if Kircher’s name was painted on the box, but it is printed on every map of the moon; there’s a crater named after him along with a number of other Jesuit scientists of his era.)
I traveled up to Mentorella in 2007 on a research trip for the book—got a ride in the back of a van with some Italian artists and their dog. It’s a beautiful place, about fifteen hundred feet above the valley below. That’s about three times higher than the Washington Monument. But anyplace up high is good for the view.
John Glassie is the author of A Man of Misconceptions: The Life of an Eccentric in an Age of Change, a biography of Athanasius Kircher being published this week.