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The Alethiometer

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History of the Alethiometer

The first alethiometer was constructed in Prague during the reign of Rudolf II by a scholar named Pavel Khunrath. He was trying to record the influences of the planets according to a method that combined classical astrology with the memory - theater system of symbolic images developed by such scholars as Giulio Camillo and Giordano Bruno. Prague, under Emperor Rudolf II, was a hotbed of alchemy, and Khunrath himself had made experiments, discovering in the process an alloy of two rare metals that had mysterious quasi-magnetic properties - that is, it responded like the needle of a compass. But whereas a compass needle points to north, this pointed to truth.

He suspended a needle of this alloy over a celestial map, and found that he could influence the way it moved through questions he framed in his mind. At first, his dialogue with the needle was limited to the range of symbols in the zodiac, but he soon adapted the memory theater (a mnemonic device used by Renaissance philosophers) to provide himself with a much richer range of images. In order to communicate more effectively, he invented the method of indicating both the question and the answer by means of hands, like those of a watch, and a needle, like that of a compass.

Khunrath soon discovered that the meanings in the symbol ranges already existed, in some mysterious way, independent of his inventing them. He seemed to be discovering them, not making them up, as a mathematician discovers truths about numbers that are hidden deeply in the natural number system. He wrote down the first few dozen meanings, but got no further, for in 1612 Emperor Rudolf II died, and the new emperor, Frederick, was a fanatical opponent of this kind of occult philosophy. In the name of the Magisterium, Khunrath was burned at the stake.

However, a few of his instruments survived, together with a copy of his book of readings. Other scholars in freer countries developed the art of interpretation after his death. It was one of these later scholars who coined the name alethiometer, from the Greek words for truth and measure.