The Correspondence of Caspar Schott

Primary Contributors:

Thomas E. Conlon and Hans-Joachim Vollrath

Caspar Schott (1608–1666)

Caspar Schott was born at Bad Königshofen im Grabfeld and probably educated at the Jesuit Gymnasium in Würzburg before entering the Jesuit novitiate at Trier on 30 October 1627. Following the mandatory two-year period of intense religious formation, culminating in vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, he matriculated at the University of Würzburg on 6 November 1629 to begin the prescribed three-year course in philosophy which, in the formation of a Jesuit, was a necessary prerequisite to a four-year study of theology. The first two years of philosophy were given over to logic, mathematics, and the physical sciences. Schott’s first decisive stroke of good fortune was to be taught mathematics by a young, newly appointed professor, the 28-year-old Athanasius Kircher. Schott’s veneration of, affection for, and desire to emulate this future star of the Jesuit Order and European celebrity was a leitmotif of the remainder of his life. This idyllic period ended abruptly with fall of Würzburg to the troops of Gustavus Adolphus on 15 October 1631. Schott was sent by his superiors to Tournai in Belgium where he completed his final year of philosophy and where, in 1632, he was admitted to the study of theology. After just one year of theology at Tournai, perhaps because the northern European Jesuit houses were becoming overwhelmed by the need to accommodate their refugee confreres, he was sent to Caltigirone in Sicily to continue his studies.  His life for the next nineteen years was passed in the discharge of routine pastoral and teaching responsibilities in various locations on the island, with a final posting to Palermo from 1648 to 1652. Ordained a priest in 1637, he became a fully professed Jesuit of the four vows on 24 November 1641.

The earliest letter witnessing renewed contact with Kircher is dated 8 July 1650 from Palermo, where we find Schott acting as a selling agent for Kircher’s Musurgia Universalis and eagerly volunteering his services to his old teacher. Two years later, in a letter to Kircher of 18 August 1652, he was recording his satisfaction at having obtained all the necessary authorizations for his transfer to Rome to become Kircher’s associate at the prestigious Collegio Romano. This transfer was the second instance of good fortune in his life. During the two-and-a-half years he spent in Rome, in addition to fulfilling his duties as Kircher’s associate, he gave evidence of his truly amazing capacity for work by composing the 440-page opus Mechanica Hydraulico-pneumatica. This interlude of work with Kircher, when he became for the first time an author in his own right (albeit unpublished), came to an end in the spring of 1655 when he was transferred back to Germany — initially to Mainz and subsequently to Würzburg, where he was to spend his remaining years. His transfer appears to have been inspired, at least in part, by the desire of the Jesuit General Goswinus Nickel to mollify the Archbishop Elector of Mainz, Johann von Schönborn, with whom the Order’s relations had become strained.

Although it appears from his letters that, at least for a period, Schott missed Rome intensely, his transfer to Germany proved an unequivocal blessing. He established rapidly a network of influential connections, found patrons to bear the publication expenses of his books, and, stepping out of Kircher’s shadow, was able to give his life the fulfilment he desired — that of being a teacher, author, disseminator of scientific knowledge, and an energetic, but essentially humble, servant of the republic of letters. One last piece of good fortune befell him shortly after his return to his native land. Schönborn, as Elector of Mainz, had attended the Diet of Regensburg in 1654 where Otto von Guericke, also attending to plead Magdeburg’s case for becoming a Free City, had demonstrated his vacuum experiments to the assembled dignitaries. Schönborn was so impressed that he bought von Guericke’s apparatus from him on the spot and had it sent to the Jesuit College at Würzburg, of which diocese he was also bishop. Schott and his confrere Melchior Cornaeus were interested spectators at demonstrations of von Guericke’s vacuum pump. Seeking initially no more than clarification on the working of the apparatus, Schott began a correspondence  with von Guericke that led to his being the first to publish the work on the vacuum of one of the great scientists of the day — firstly, in 1657, as an appendix to the Mechanica Hydraulico-pneumatica and subsequently, at greater length, in Technica Curiosa in 1663.

Between 1657 and his death in Würzburg on 22 May 1666, Schott composed twelve erudite works comprising some 10,000 pages, ten of which were published during his lifetime. His Jesuit elogium records him, one imagines entirely justly, as a man ‘laboris pene ferrei, Catholicis et Acatholicis in amoribus et Veneratione’, who died ‘exhaustus demum studiis et occupationibus prope continuis’.

Partners and Additional Contributors

EMLO would like to thank Thomas E. Conlon and Hans-Joachim Vollrath for their scholarly work on this catalogue and their contribution of the metadata, transcriptions, and translations. Thanks are due also to Thomas E. Conlon for this introductory text. The 176 letters featured currently in EMLO were calendared by Dr Iva Lelková during Phases II and III of the Cultures of Knowledge project on the basis of the transcriptions prepared and generously provided by Thomas E. Conlon and Hans-Joachim Vollrath.

Thomas E. Conlon and Hans-Joachim Vollrath wish to express their gratitude to Stefano Bragato, Iva Lelkova, Sir Noel Malcolm, Rev. Alban Müller S.J., Rev. Julius Oswald S.J., Barteld de Vries, and Joella Yoder and for their assistance and encouragement at various junctures in the process of discovering and deciphering Schott’s correspondence.


Schott’s extant correspondence comprises some 178 letters and 31 known correspondents, plus a few whom he chose not to identify. The Jesuit luminaries of the day — men like Zucchius and Ricciolus and, of course, Kircher — constitute the largest single group. Scientifically however, his most significant correspondents were the non-Jesuits: Kinner, a Catholic and probably a priest, the Lutheran von Guericke, the Dutch Calvinist Philip Ernst Vegelin, and the Socinian Stanislaus Lubinietski. The most unexpected of his correspondents are perhaps the Englishmen Kenelm Digby, who sent him a copy of Thomas White’s fallacious quadrature of the circle, and Robert Boyle, who politely declined his overtures.

The correspondence begins with Schott’s letter to Kircher of 8 July 1650 and concludes with a letter from Stanislaus Lubienietski of 9 June 1666, some three weeks after Schott’s death. With the exception of ten letters in Italian to Kircher and two in German to Fredrick Köth, the correspondence is in Latin. A high proportion of the letters are concerned, to a greater or lesser extent, with mathematics, science, and technology  —  quadrature problems and the squaring of the circle, magic squares, optics and lens polishing, acoustics, ballistics, fortification engineering, water supply, perpetual motion machines, automated translation, the 1664 comet, and, above all, the vacuum. In the non-scientific parts of the letters, books — the problems of obtaining, selling, publishing, and writing them —  form a recurrent theme. Schott was socially well connected and passed on to Kircher interesting gossip about, among other things, the conversation at a dinner for the Electors and about his own meeting with Kaiser Leopold.

Transcriptions and translations, prepared by Thomas E. Conlon and Hans-Joachim Vollrath, of as many as possible of the letters will be displayed in EMLO shortly.

Excerpt from the preface to Magia Universalis. (Text image and translation courtesy of Thomas E. Conlon) Translation: As long experience had taught me in such matters, I concentrated particularly, for a period of many years, on the study of unusual phenomena in every branch of science, or the arts, or occurring anywhere in nature. Whatever was obscure, paradoxical, extraordinary and seemingly miraculous with which I was in any way either directly acquainted or learned about from written accounts, either by scholars or master craftsmen, I would take note, examine, try out in practice, and investigate its workings. I did all this not only that I would be in command of what I had learned, but also that I would be confident in my expertise and could teach others if an occasion should arise.

Further resources

The most comprehensive source of information about Schott is wunderbar berechenbar – die Welt des Würzburger Mathematikers Kaspar Schott, ed. Prof. Hans-Joachim Vollrath with contributions by Rita Haub, Julius Oswald, Eva Pleticha-Geuder, Harald Siebert, and Hans-Joachim Vollrath (Würzburg: Echter, 2007), published as a Begleitband to the exhibition Vollrath organised at the University of Würzburg in 2008 to mark the quatercentenary of Schott’s birth.

Kaspar Schotts Netzwerk, by Hans-Joachim Vollrath and Thomas E. Conlon, with Alban Müller (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2014) gives transcripts and German translations of Schott’s correspondence with Philip Ernst Vegelin and J. M. Faber. Schott an Kircher by Hans-Joachim Vollrath and Thomas E. Conlon (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2016) gives transcripts and German translations of Schott’s correspondence with Athanasius Kircher.

Marcus Hellyer’s Catholic Physics: Jesuit Natural Philosophy in Early Modern Germany (Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame Press, 2005 ) has a chapter — ‘The Peregrinations of the Pump’ —dedicated largely to Schott.

Primary Sources

Manuscripts of Schott’s letters in his own hand are preserved at the Gregorian University in Rome (Schott to Kircher), Tresoar Archiv at Leeuwarden, and the library of the University of Leiden (HUG45) (Schott to Vegelin), the Trew Sammlung at Erlangen (Schott to J.M. Faber), and the library of the University of Basle (Schott to Lucas Schröck ). The library of University of Basle also holds a scribal copy of a letter from Kircher to Schott. The Landesbibliotek, Stuttgart, holds the sole known example of a manuscript of a letter from Kircher to Schott

Secondary Sources

Schott’s printed works, particularly Technica Curiosa, Mechanica Hydraulico-pneumatica, Physica Curiosa, Magia Universalis, and Itinerarium, record letters written to him by various correspondents and often give some information about letters written by him. Stanislaus Lubienietski’s Theatrum Cometicum contains partial copies of letters by Schott and many other authors in connection with the comet of 1664. The Archivum Romanum Societatis Jesu holds minutes of letters to Schott by Goswinus Nickel, the Jesuit General from 1652 to 1664. Michael Hunter’s The Correspondence of Robert Boyle, 1636–1691, ed. Michael Hunter, Antonio Clericuzio, and Lawrence M Principe (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2001) contains the minute of Boyle’s reply to Schott’s letter. Other printed sources are Giovanni Batista Hodierna’s Colomba Volante (1653), Johannes Becher’s Methodus Didactica (1668), and Andreas Schumacher’s Gelehrter Männer Briefe an die Könige von Dänemark vom Jahre 1522 bis 1663, part 3 (Copenhagen, 1759).


Launch Catalogue

Please see our citation guidelines for instructions on how to cite this catalogue.