Schott, Gaspar

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(b.Königshofen, near Würzburg, Germany, 5 February 1608; d. Würzburg, 22 May 1666)

mathematics, physics, technology.

Apart from the place and date of his birth, nothing is known of Schott’s origins; almost the only childhood recollection in his works is of a suction pump bursting at Paderborn in 1620, which suggests an early interest in machinery. In 1627 he entered the

Society of Jesus and was sent to Würzburg University, where he studied philosophy under Athanasius Kircher. The Swedish invasion of the Palatinate in 1631 forced teacher and pupils to flee. Schott may have first accompanied Kircher to France, for he mentions his travels in that country; but he certainly completed his studies in theology, philosophy, and mathematics at Palermo. He remained in Sicily for twenty years, mostly teaching at Palermo. although he spent two years at Trapani. Nerverthless he was anxious to satisfy a strong thirst for knowledge and to resume his connection with Kircher, whom he always revered as his master. Schott was able to satisfy his desire in 1652, when he was sent to Rome, where for three years he collaborated with Kircher on his researches. Schott decided that since Kircher did not have time to publish all that he knew and all the information communicated to him by Jesuits abroad, he himself would do so. While compiling this material, he returned to Germany in the summer of 1655, first to Mainz and then to Würzburg, where he taught mathematics and physics.

Schott first published what had originally been intended as a brief guide to the hydraulic and pneumatic instruments in Kircher’s Roman museum, expanding it into the first version of his Mechanica hydraulico-pneumatica. But he added as an appendix a detailed account of Guericke’s experiments on vacuums, the earliest published report of this work. This supplement contributed greatly to the success of Schott’s compendium; and as a result he became the center of a network of correspondence as other Jesuits, as well as lay experimenters and mechanicians, wrote to inform him of their inventions and discoveries. Schott exchanged several letters with Guericke, seeking to draw him out by suggesting new problems. and published his later investigations. He also corresponded with Huygens and was the first to make Boyle’s work on the air pump widely known in Germany. Schott repeated Guericke’s experiments, and later those of Boyle, at Würzburg, as well as some medical experiments on the effects of intravenous injections. He does not, however, seem to have attempted any original investigations.

During the last years of his life, Schott was engaged in publishing this mass of material, besides what he had brought with him from Rome, adding his own commentaries and footnotes: he produced some eleven titles over eight years (1658–1666). But although his industry was impressive, these books consist largely of extracts from communications he had received or from books he had used. Schott was so determined to include all possible arguments on every side that it is often hard to discover what he himself thought. While he maintained that the experiments of Guericke. Torricelli, Boyle, and others had not produced a true vacuum, the space exhausted of air being filled with “aether,” he accepted the assumption that the phenomena previously attributed to the effects of horror vacui were really due to atmospheric pressure or to the elasticity of the air. In a treatise on the then very popular theme of the origin of springs, his own opinion, when finally expressed, amounted to saying that everyone was right: some springs are due to precipitation, some to underground condensation, and some are connected directly to the sea.

Schott’s chief works, the Magia universalis and the two companion volumes, Physica curiosa and Technica curiosa, are huge, uncritical collections, mines of quaīnt īnformatīon īn whīch sīgnīficant nuggests must be extracted from a great deal of dross. Like many of his time. Schott believed that the principles of nature and art are best revealed in their exceptions. This makes him a useful source on the history of scientific instruments and mechanical technology: a treatise on “chronometric marvels” (which may be his own, since it is ascribed to “a friend” and often quotes his earlier writings) contains the first description of gear teeth. Although the “natural curiosities” include some useful matter (such as on South American mammals), his syncretic attitude and taste for the abnormal made him far readier than most of his contemporaries to credit tales of ghosts, demons, and centaurs. All this writing about magic, both natural and supernatural, involved him in slight difficulties with the censors.

Schott apparently yearned for the intellectual delights of Rome, and after twenty-five years in Italy he suffered from German winters and had to have his own hypocaust installed. He visited Rome in 1661, and in 1664 he applied for a post to teach mathematics at the Jesuits’ Roman college: this was rejected, and instead he was offered the headship of the college at Heiligenstadt, which he rejected, feeling himself unsuited to administration. Exhausted, it was said, by overwork on his books. he died in 1666.

Undoubtedly Schott was extraordinarily productive. But his contribution was essentially that of an editor who prepared the researches of others for the press without adding much of consequence. Still, he did much to popularize the achievements of contemporary physicists. especially—but not exclusively—in Catholic Germany.


I. Original Works. Schott’s most important writings are Mechanica hydraulico-pneumatica (Würzburg. 1657): Magia universalis, 4 vols. (Würzburg. 1657–1659): Physica curiosa, 2 vols. (Würzburg. 1662): Anatomia physico-hydrostatica fontiun ac fluminum (Würzburg, 1663): and Technica curiosa (Würzburg, 1664).

II. Secondary Literature. All later articles are based on N. Southwell [N. Bacon]. Bibliotheca scriptorum Societatis Jesu (Rome, 1682), 282: and A. de Backer, in Bibliothèque des écrivains de la Compagie de Jé , K. Sommervoge, ed., VII (Paris, 1896), 904–912. The only later biographer to add further information is G. Duhr. Geschichte der Jesuiten in den Ländern deutscher Zunge, III (Munich-Regensburg, 1923), 587–592.

A. G. Keller