The Real History of Telescopes

The telescope, a device tailored to make faraway objects appear close, is one of the best human inventions ever. With it, we can observe various sky objects in detail, compared to binoculars. Ever since its invention, we’ve viewed the world around us differently. But who really discovered this device?

Hans Lippershey

The Credited Inventor

Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t Galileo Galilei. Dutch eyeglass maker Hans Lippershey was actually the first one to apply for a telescope patent. In 1608, he attempted to put a claim on an instrument that has 3x magnification power. His telescope consisted of a concave eyepiece lined up with a convex objective lens.




Zacharias Jansen

Original or Stolen?

However, his originality was questioned. Some say he got the idea from observing two children holding up two lenses, while some believed that he stole it from Zacharias Jansen. The latter also made optical instruments and they both lived in one town. There was no apparent evidence that Lippershey developed the telescope alone, but because of his patent application, he was credited for it. On the other hand, Jansen was recognized for inventing the compound microscope. It is clear, however, that they worked hand in hand for the development of both devices.



Journey to the Credit

The voyage of Lippershey towards the credit wasn’t easy. Jacob Metius, another Dutchman, also applied for a patent, weeks after Lippershey did. The government of Netherlands then turned down both applications because the instrument was easy to reproduce and the counterclaims were hard to resolve. But in the end, they gave a small reward to Metius and Lippershey was paid by the government to reproduce his telescope.


Galileo’s Grand Entrance<img src="galileo.jpg" alt="A portrait of Galileo Galilei by Justus Sustermans">

After a year, news about the “Dutch perspective glasses” reached the ears of Galileo Galilei and he decided to make his own, without a sample of one. He was then recognized by the Venetian Senate because of his design and was later offered a job as a lecturer at the University of Padua.

It is believed that Galileo was the first who pointed the telescope to the skies and was the one who discovered the craters and mountains on the moon,  the sunspots on our sun, the moons of Jupiter, and the Milky Way.

Because of his constant use of the device, he was convinced that the sun was the center of our solar system. His ideas, however, were deemed heretical and so he was sentenced to house arrest until he died in 1642.


Thomas Harriot

The Neglected Efforts of a Famous Mathematician

Since we’re discussing the truth here, it’s only fair that we recognize the British ethnographer and mathematician named Thomas Harriot. He also observed the moon but he used a spotting scope instead of a telescope. Although his August 1609 moon drawings existed before Galileo’s, his works were never published. Because of this, Galileo was thought to be the first one to make diagrams of the moon.




From Lenses to Mirrors

In 1897, Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin housed the largest refracting telescope ever built. But it became obsolete because of larger mirrors.

The 40-inch telescope in Yerkes Observatory

In 1917, the Mount Wilson Observatory in Pasadena, Calif became famous for sheltering The Hooker, a 100-inch reflecting telescope. This was used by Edwin Hubble to identify the distance of the Andromeda Nebula.

The Hooker in Mount Wilson Observatory

Further discoveries were then made using reflecting, even radio telescopes. And the rest, as they say, is history.