The year 2008 marked the 400th anniversary of the invention of the optical telescope. The prototype of its modern version can be traced to September 1608, when a maker of eyeglasses or spectacles from Middleburg, Zealand in the Netherlands, Hans Lipperhey (1570-1619), also known as “Hans Lippershey” or Hans Lippersheim, applied for a patent for an optical system, known as ‘spy glasses’. That simple prototype eventually became the basis for the first astronomical telescope.The world now celebrates the 400th anniversary of the telescope, as no other device has equaled it in redefining our view of the universe.
Lipperhey, born in weasel in Germany, migrated to the Netherlands, then famous for lens crafting in Europe next only to Italy. He invented what he called a kijker, meaning “looker” in Dutch. According to one story, two children in his shop told him that a weather vane on a church seemed larger when peered at through two lenses. Lipperhey promptly placed a tube in between two lances and made a spy glass, which led to what we today call a telescope. Not all agree that Lipperhey was the first to’ invent’ a telescope. Zechariahs Jannssen, also from the Netherlands, Jacob Metius of Alkmaar and Juan Roget (1593), a spectacle-maker in Spain, are credited with the invention, prior to Lipperhey’s device, the idea of combining lenses to magnify distant objects probably occurred to several people including Roger Bacon, an English Franciscan monk, who studied optics, and Giordano Fracastoro, an Italian astronomer.But certainly, Lipperhey was the first person to describe a telescope in writing.
Ironically, the device which changed our understanding of the cosmos appeared in an age of intolerance. Roger Bacon was accused of practicing witchcraft! Hardly eight years before Lipperhey’s invention, in 1600, was Giordano Bruno, An Italian, who was burnt at the stakes for his proclaimed faith in the heliocentric theory. Bruno could not command any device to prove that the Universe was infinite, and that a star might have a solar system.
Even through Copernicus upheld the heliocentric system in 1543; he could not confirm his view with any observational instrument. In the days before the telescope, an imaginative observer, Tycho Brahe constructed astronomical instruments and compiled data on the positions of planets.