Who Invented the Telescope?

From backyards to mountaintops to orbit, telescopes are everywhere in today’s world but this was not always the case. Since its inception, the telescope has changed the way humanity looks at the universe.

The invention of the telescope was a momentous event that would end up changing the world.

A First Time for Everything

Pierre Borel [Public domain]

In 1608 Hans Lippershey, a Dutch eyeglass maker was the first person to ever apply for a patent for a telescope. This patent has led many to give sole credit to Lippershey for the invention of the telescope even though others at the time also claimed to have invented it first. There was a dispute between Lippershey and Zacharias Jensen, the inventor of the compound microscope as well as a few other locals who laid claim to the invention but in the end, the government sided with Lippershey and commissioned him to make more of his telescope.

Lippershey’s telescope had a magnifying power of three times and was widely distributed throughout Europe at the time of its invention. It quickly caught the attention of many in Europe’s elite circles. It would soon become apparent that the invention of the telescope was going to hold people’s attention for a very long time.

Historians widely agree that Lippershey’s patent marks the invention of the telescope for the first time. It is an easily identifiable timestamp in history. It is the moment in which prototypes and ideas enter the scientific community at large as a single device.

While modern people unanimously associate the telescope with space, the first telescope was not designed with the solar system in mind. It was never used as an observation device for the cosmos at all. That would soon change when word of the invention reached Italy.

Galileo Is Inspired

Galileo Galilei, a famous Italian thinker, hears about the invention of the magnification device and is instantly inspired to try his hand at building his own. In 1609 Galileo succeeds in creating his version of the telescope that has a magnification power of twenty times, a six-fold increase over Lippershey’s original design. While Lippershey’s name is credited for the invention of the telescope, Galileo was the first person to use the new invention to look at the sky and the world would never be the same.

Galileo uses his new and improved telescope design to peer into the cosmos and he begins to take note of what he sees. He is the first person to see the rings of Saturn, the moons of Jupiter, and blemishes on the moon and sun. Galileo’s discoveries kick off a fascination with the universe that continues to this day.

His device was used to scour the skies and his discoveries would build a case against many of the views of the day. Galileo proved that heavenly bodies were not perfect and his observations of the movements of the moons of Jupiter gave credence to the heliocentric model of the universe before it was accepted belief. Ultimately this probing for truth among the stars would lead Galileo to live out his days under house arrest but his legacy would live on in a big way.

Galileo’s telescope was a basic refracting telescope based off of Lippershey’s original version. It was long and bulky with a very narrow scope of view which left some wondering if there was a better way for a telescope to operate.

Newton Changes the Game

The next big change to the telescope’s design comes half a century later from Sir Isaac Newton. In 1668 Newton creates his version of the telescope but changes the core design so that it is a reflecting telescope rather than a refracting telescope. Newton was able to take something complicated and simplify it so that a wider audience could use and understand it.

Newton follows in Galileo’s footsteps and uses his new telescope to observe the moons of Jupiter and demonstrates his ability to the Royal Society of London. The members are overjoyed with the evolution of the telescope and tout Newton’s design changes as a monumental improvement over the original concept.

Newton’s design is extremely simple and uses two mirrors to magnify the desired image. The design is so simple and so cheap that it is still widely used today. Incredibly, many backyard telescopes used by amateur sky gazers still use this design from 1668.

From Newton To Today

In the 21st century, telescopes come in all shapes and sizes and many different varieties. There has been a lot of progress from Lippershey’s invention of the telescope, there are now radio telescopes, giant reflecting telescopes and even a growing number of orbital telescopes. All of these telescopes have their origins in the simple idea that objects can be magnified from a great distance so that they can better be seen and studied.

Shortly, even more, advanced telescopes are being planned for the continuous observation of the universe. A successor to the famous Hubble Telescope called the James Webb Space Telescope is slated to launch in 2021 with even greater ability than its predecessor. The Hubble Space Telescope was a groundbreaking achievement for science and many are hoping the James Webb Telescope will be an even greater leap forward.

In Chile, construction continues on the Giant Magellan Telescope which is an Extremely Large Telescope the next frontier for modern telescope design. Extremely large telescopes take Newton’s basic idea for mirrored magnification and take it to unprecedented scales. The Giant Magellan Telescope is going to be home to the world’s largest mirrors to date and is scheduled to be finished in 2029.

Telescopes continue to be an important driving force in the scientific community. They have uncovered the existence of millions of other galaxies in the universe, found fascinating black holes, and tracked the life cycle of stars. They have been used to come up with the Big Bang Theory and show how the universe is expanding and changing.

A Lasting Impact

It is hard to believe that Hans Lippershey knew the impact he would have on the course of human history when he first invented his telescope. It was an ingenious device that rose out of the lens making business over 500 years ago and yet it continues to be an important device that is still in use today. While it was helped along by the likes of other geniuses such as Galileo and Newton, the legacy of the telescope endures and will continue to endure into the distant future.