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Invention of the Telescope

A key instrument in the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century, the telescope first appears in recorded history in the Netherlands during the last week of September, 1608.

The national government in The Hague considered two separate patent applications from of Hans Lipperhey of Middelburg and Jacob Metius of Alkmaar for a similar device for "seeing faraway things as though nearby." 

Both inventors presented patent applications for a convex and concave lens in a tube, the of which combination magnified three or four times.

As Fred Watson explains in "Stargazer: The Life and Times of the Telescope," the presentation of these applications coincided with the final days of a difficult war between Spain and the provinces of the Netherlands. "How extraordinary, then," he writes, that "Prince Maurice should be presented out of the blue with a military device of enormous strategic significance -- the first working telescope."

According to Watson, the telescope was very much a product of its time, as spectacle-makers like Lipperhey had just recently developed the techniques necessary to produce concave and convex lenses of sufficient quality. It was only a matter of time before someone fitted a couple lenses in a tube in the right formation to produce the telescopic effect.

"There seems little doubt that several spectacle-makers knew the secret of the telescope in the early 1600s," Watson notes.

The States Generals, ruling on the patent applications, eventually found the invention too common and too easily copied to be worthy of a patent. Instead, it voted Metius a small award and employed Lipperhey to make several binocular versions, for which he was paid handsomely.

"History accords Lipperhey a place as the person who first brought the telescope on to the world stage, although it denies him the honour of being the instrument's original inventor," Watson explains. "Whether or not he actually invented the telescope, or even understood what he was about, Lipperhey was ahead of his time in the mechanical construction of optical instruments. For that -- and for the invention of binoculars -- he deserves far more credit than he is accorded."


The Life and Times of the Telescope

by Fred Watson 
Da Capo Press, 2005.

This is a history of the telescope told in human terms, recounting the scientists and politicians and eccentrics who played a role in extending the reach of mankind's vision.

From its humble beginnings as a pair of spectacle lenses in a hollow tube in Denmark to the space-based Hubble, the story of telescopes is primarily a Euro-American adventure. Even today, 14 of the 19 largest and most important telescopes are located in Hawaii and the Americas. There's one each on the continents of Africa and Australia, but none in Asia.

"In a sense, this book is a history of aperture fever," author-astronomer Fred Watson admits. His history demonstrates that the quest for ever-larger mirrors has been both the driving force in the history of the telescope and its greatest scourge.

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