The history of the telescope is a very interesting and lengthy topic. Beginner astronomers often marvel at the wonders of space and ask all sorts of questions related to telescopes. How were they made? Who made them and when? How did we figure out how to use them for viewing the stars and planets?
If you have just recently begun dabbling in astronomy or even if you’ve been practicing the hobby for years, the history of the telescope is probably something that you haven’t learned about in-depth.
Knowing more about your craft and the device that you use to view the stars is the next step to becoming a professional. You need to know about how we started off in order to know where the future is taking us and as technology progresses more and more, there will surely be many new innovations to be introduced in the field.
Where It All Began – Hans Lippershey
The credit for the invention of the telescope goes to Hans Lippershey, a Dutch lens maker who lived in a small town in The Netherlands. In 1608, he went to government offices and attempted to file a patent for his device, which he described as, “an instrument to see far away objects as if they were near”.
The application was denied, however, because the government felt that the device was too easy to reproduce. Although he wasn’t able to get his telescope patented, the government paid him to make copies of it for them.
The first telescope that Hans Lippershey built had used two lenses – a convex objective lens at the front and a concave lens for the eyepiece – the early beginnings of a refractor. It only had 3x magnification. As the story goes, he got the idea for the instrument after seeing two kids playing with lenses in his shop.
Another myth says that he stole the idea from Zacharias Jansen, another lensmaker who lived in the same town. Whatever really happened, the fact remained that Hans Lippershey played an important role in the creation of the telescope and he is credited with its invention due to first having filed a patent for it.
The Galilean Telescope
A year later, in 1609, news had reached Galileo Galilei in Venice about the creation of the “Dutch perspective glasses” as they were being called at the time. Without ever having seen the instrument yet, he made one himself and improved the design, which allowed for a maximum magnification of 8x.
Once the Venetian Senate laid eyes on the device that Galileo presented to them, they were so impressed that they gave him a job at the University of Padua and doubled his salary.
From there, as we all know, Galileo began using his telescope design for astronomy. He improved his original design even further by lengthening the scope and eventually had created one that could reach 23x magnification.
The very same year, he was able to operate the telescope to observe sunspots, discover Jupiter’s satellites, the phases of Venus, and could identify features on the Moon.
Galileo had truly revolutionized the telescope and paved the way towards many modern telescopic elements. In 1611, Galileo’s instrument received the name “telescope” for the first time; created from the Greek words “tele”, meaning “far”, and “skopein”, meaning “to look or see”.
Later that year, Johannes Kepler published a theory demonstrating the increased effectivity of a telescope that used two convex lenses. Kepler’s telescope design eventually led to the creation of the first true refractor telescopes.
The Newtonian Telescope
Fast forward 55 years to London in 1666 and Isaac Newton began to experiment with a different type of telescope that used mirrors instead of lenses, as he had incorrectly concluded from several experiments that chromatic aberration could not be avoided in refractor telescope and a different method had to be used.
After two years, Newton had succeeded in creating the first functional reflector telescope. He then set about to improve the design even further – adding a secondary diagonal mirror which served to focus light from the primary mirror to the eyepiece. This feature would eventually become a hallmark of Newtonian reflector telescopes which survives to this very day.
By 1672, Isaac Newton had finally constructed his final design – a reflector telescope with two mirrors that could magnify up to 38x. After proving that his design worked by observing the four Galilean moons and the crescent phase of Venus, he submitted the finished product to the Royal Society of London in 1672 and the rest is history.
As telescopic design entered the modern age, they branched out and began to perform many other functions. Some of these telescopes that produce images using other wavelengths besides visible light include radio telescopes, infrared telescopes, ultraviolet telescopes, X-ray telescopes, and Gamma-ray telescopes.
Many telescopes today are completely computerized and no longer require a physically present user to operate them. They have built-in WiFi and GPS capabilities, as well as alignment technology which automatically locates and tracks the heavenly bodies that you wish to observe.
Modern telescopes have come so far but still retain many of the same features that original Galilean and Newtonian telescopes had. Larger observatories and subsequently larger telescopes have allowed us to view celestial objects beyond our wildest dreams and learn so much about the universe.
When the Hubble Space Telescope was launched into the sky, it marked the beginning of a new era of deep-space astronomy. As we continue to make astonishing new discoveries in the field of astronomy, there’s no telling what lies ahead for the human race as we continue our journey to explore the reaches of the unknown.