Who Invented the Telescope? Nick Pelling Suggests That Credit Should Go Not to the Netherlands but Much Further South to Catalonia

By Pelling, Nick | History Today, October 2008 | Go to article overview

Who Invented the Telescope? Nick Pelling Suggests That Credit Should Go Not to the Netherlands but Much Further South to Catalonia


Pelling, Nick, History Today


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Four centuries ago this year, stories issued from the Netherlands describing the invention of a twin-lens device for seeing at a distance--the telescope. Though it began its life as no more than a low-power spyglass, it quickly evolved into a high-magnification precision optical instrument, capable even of viewing Jupiter's moons.

The idea for a telescope did not come out of the blue: rumours of both refractive and reflective optical devices to achieve distant vision had circulated for hundreds of years, often in dubious magical contexts. For example, Europe had recently been set abuzz by Johannes Cambilhom's sensational pamphlet Discoverie of the Most Secret and Subtile Practises of the Jesuites (1608), which described the Society of Jesus' 'bawdy adventures with innocent girls, its vast stores of buried treasure, its arsenals of weaponry', along with a 'looking glasse of astrology', a 'celestiall or rather devilish glasse' supposedly used by the Catholic French king 'to see playnly what-soever his Maiestie desirded to know'.

Even so, beneath all the early Renaissance propaganda, mythology and imaginings lurked a strand of genuine creative puzzlement: if you could make magnifying glasses and spectacles, then surely it must be possible to construct optical devices to solve other social needs. Though both convex and concave lenses were widely available as early as 1450, even the cleverest optical experimenters of the day, such as the Neapolitan Giovanni Battista della Porta (1535-1615), were apparently unable to arrange them to form a simple telescope. Probably the biggest hindrance was the confused theory of the time, which believed human vision to happen not in the retina at the back of the eye hut somehow right at the front of the eye.

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Despite all the false starts and false claims, by 1608 somebody had finally worked out a way of combining lenses in a tube to build the first real telescope. But who was it? Earlier historians thought it was a Dutchman, while more recent historians have suggested various Italians. Yet surprising new evidence presented here points towards someone from the fiercest enemy of Dutch Protestants--Spain.

In the autumn of 1608, the Netherlands had been at war for over four decades. Seven Protestant northern provinces rebelled against a Catholic monarch, Philip II, who lived in Spain. Terms of a truce (which would subsequently hold for twelve years) were slowly being ground out, with the leading French delegate Pierre Jeannin deftly mediating between the two sides' impossible demands. Consequently, The Hague was crammed full of diplomats and observers from all those European countries with a stake in the outcome.

On September 25th, 1608, 'a humble, very religious and God-fearing man' entered this gossip-fuelled political bear-pit: spectacle-maker Hans Lipperhey of Middelburg, a coastal town with a large glassworks, had come to the city to demonstrate his secret new invention to the Dutch leader Prince Maurice of Nassau. The prince in turn showed it to the leaders of the other provinces, and also to the greatly amazed Spanish commander-in-chief Ambrogio Spinola, who remarked: 'From now on I could no longer be safe, for you will see me from afar.'

Rumours of the new device quickly reached others in The Hague; Pierre Jeannin asked Lipperhey to build some for him, but the quiet spectacle-maker had already been instructed to refuse all offers. The story of his invention rapidly appeared in news-sheets, and from there spread across Europe, reaching Spain, France, and Italy by the end of the year. Right from the start it was appreciated that this could be used to view the heavens. As one news-sheet said, 'Even the stars which ordinarily are invisible to our sight and our eyes, because of their smallness and the weakness of our eyes, can be seen by means of this instrument.'

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On October 2nd, 1608, Lipperhey submitted his application for a patent, and four days later received a generous 900-guilder commission to build three pairs of rock-crystal-lens binoculars. …

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