Hans Lippershey and the Telescope

Hans Lippershey
(1570 – 1619)

On October 2, 1608,  German-Dutch lensmaker Hans Lippershey applied to the States-General of the Netherlands for a patent for his instrument “for seeing things far away as if they were nearby”.

Even though scientists of the 12th century never heard of telescopes and most of them did not know specific laws of optics, the started laying the foundations for telescopes as we know them today. Ptolemy already began publishing works on light refraction and reflection and so called ‘reading stones’ were used on top of literature for magnifying purposes. Nicholas of Cusa is believed to have invented the usage of concave lenses around 1450. From there, many scientists began using lenses and some even started thinking of telescopes. Robert Grosseteste was known to be one of them but it is not clear if he ever started building one. It is assumed that the principles of building telescoped were known during the 16th century, due to writing of for example John Dee.

In the very early 17th century, telescopes caused public attention in Europe, especially the Netherlands. Credited with this achievement are Jacob Adriaanszoon, Zacharias Janssenand Hans Lippershey. Lippershey was born in Germany, but moved to the Netherlands wre he lived most of his life. He is now credited with the earliest recorded design for a refracting telescope in 1608. He was a spectacle maker, which was a rapidly growing business in this period. However, there are different stories on how he achieved his famous invention. Some state, that one of his assistants came up with the idea, others tell that children in his shop inspired him by playing with the lenses. Historians believe that his very first instrument was made of two convex lenses with an inverted image with a three times magnification. Back then these instruments were not known as telescopes but as ‘Dutch perspective glasses’ and Lippershey turned to the States-General on October 2, 1608 in order to patent his instrument “for seeing things far away as if they were nearby”.  Unfortunately, he failed the filing of the patent,  because he was not the only one who claimed to have made this invention. However, he received a good reward by the Dutch government for handing out copies of his construction.

Attempting to file the patent turned out to be a great idea even though it was not successful. Scientists across Europe heard about the ‘Dutch perspective glass’ and started experimenting themselves. One year later, Galileo traveled to Venice, where he was told about the innovative device and started building a real telescope himself as soon as he returned to Padua. Having built improved instruments in the following weeks, Galileo came back to Venice where he demonstrated it and managed to rapidly improve his reputation, salary, and the term ‘Galilean telescope’ that was now used for the device originally designed by Lippershey.

At yovisto, you may enjoy a video lecture by Carolin Crawford on ‘Large Telescopes and why we need them

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