Gazing Into The Past: The Minds Behind The Telescope

by Tyler DeWacht


The telescope has been around for centuries and it’s had great influence on human history. Our views on the solar system would be radically different if it weren’t for Galileo’s observations; for example, the Hubble Space Telescope has given us insight regarding the inner workings of our universe. Telescopes allow us to see much farther than our eyes will ever be capable of. Have you ever stopped to wonder about them, though? How did such an influential device like the telescope actually come to exist? Who was responsible? Let’s look at some of the individuals who’ve contributed.

This edition of The Bolt will be published on October 2, 2017. Going back to October 2,

1608, the government of the Netherlands had received a patent application for an instrument that was meant for seeing things far away as if they were nearby. The applicant? A humble Dutch spectacle-maker named Hans Lippershey. This event was the first recorded attempt to patent the telescope (known back then as the Dutch perspective glass) design. Due to this, Hans Lippershey is often credited as the inventor of the earliest telescope design. Did he actually get the patent, though?

Oddly enough, another Dutch spectacle-maker named Jacob Metius submitted a patent

application for a similar design just a few weeks later. Was it mere coincidence, or was thievery involved? Either way, both patent requests were denied due to unclear origin. However, they did pay Lippershey a great deal of money in exchange for copies of his design. Metius was eventually given a small award as well, but he got the short end of the stick since Lippershey submitted first, and Metius grew bitter and distrustful of others. We don’t know what his concept looked like; he destroyed every trace of his inventions before his death so that nobody else could claim them as their own.

Another figure worth mentioning is a man named Zacharias Janssen. His son, Johannes Zachariassen, claims that his father invented the telescope well before the patent applications of both Lippershey and Metius. There are testimonials supporting this claim as well, some dating as far back as 1590. However, some of Johannes’ statements contradict each other, including the original year of invention. For that reason, this claim is rather dubious.

As the concept spread out across Europe, mainly thanks to a diplomatic report, a certain

Italian scientist named Galileo Galilei learned about it. Based on Lippershey’s concept, Galileo improved upon the design of the Dutch perspective glass and demonstrated a working version of it to influential Venetian figures. He was praised by many, including the doge of Venice at the time, Leonardo Donato, as well as by Donato’s senate. Galileo was rewarded for his work and he continued to improve the design. During a banquet held in 1611, a Greek theologian named Giovanni Demisiani even honored Galileo’s achievements. Using the Greek words tele (far) and skopein (to look or see), Galilei’s design was dubbed teleskopos (far-seeing), which would then evolve into the word telescope.

Returning to 1609, Galileo had the idea to point his telescope up at the sky. While stargazing, he noticed some strange details. The moon is supposed to be a perfect sphere, so why did the shadows make it look bumpy? If the Earth is supposed to be the centre of everything, why did Jupiter have moons? Why did Venus go through all of the same phases the moon did?

Here’s where the heliocentric model proposed by Nicolaus Copernicus comes into play. Venus couldn’t possibly go through the same phases that the Moon does unless it was revolving around the Sun and not the Earth. With these observations, Galileo had strong support for the idea that is the Sun, which is the centre of everything; this was bizarre because at the time, people believed the Earth was the centre of the universe. He fought in support of the heliocentric model even as the Catholic Church put him under indefinite house arrest under accusations of heresy.

All of the first telescopes had been refracting telescopes, the simple design which relies

solely on the lenses. Johannes Kepler, who consulted with Galileo and endorsed him, improved further on Galileo’s design and gave it a larger field of vision. However, it still ran into a major design flaw: once it reached a certain degree of magnification and/or size, you’d get visual distortions. To get around this problem, the ideas of mirrors came up. Many tried to design one with mirrors, but most design concepts were impractical at best. The first successful telescope concept involving mirrors, otherwise known as the reflecting telescope, was thought up by a Scotsman named James Gregory in 1663 and was first built ten years later in 1673 by the English scientist Robert Hooke.

However, this wasn’t actually the first reflecting telescope design built. You see, 5 years after the Gregorian telescope was designed, Sir Isaac Newton built his Newtonian telescope. Around this time, he was experimenting with light refraction. He demonstrated with prisms that white light will break apart into a rainbow but coloured lights will stay the same colour regardless of whether they get scattered, reflected, or transmitted. He also observed that objects don’t emit colours; they’re coloured the way they are due to light interactions.

From this experiment, he concluded that telescope lenses are affected by colour dispersal, an issue known as chromatic aberration. The colours could not focus correctly since the white light starts to break apart, so the image quality suffers as a result. To get around this problem, Newton’s design was made mostly with curved mirrors. This allowed for greater magnification with less distortion. However, reflecting telescopes were difficult to build, and the reflective quality of the curved mirrors used were poor compared to today’s standards, so they didn’t become popular until at least a hundred years later. By the way, remember Hooke? Newton and Hooke were fierce rivals, and they would often disagree with each other. Not very relevant to the telescope, but it’s just something I found interesting.

After Newton, more telescope designs were constructed and new types of telescopes

were designed for more specific purposes. If I were to name every design and every contributor, it would take way too long. I’d also have to start getting more technical about the science involved and science isn’t my strong suit, so let’s just skip ahead a couple centuries. On Earth, we are presented with several issues as far as telescopes are concerned: our viewing range is limited by the horizon, things can obstruct the lens, and weather is a constant concern. What if we sent some telescopes into space, though? No pesky particles to get in the way, weather isn’t a concern, and the viewing range is greatly improved.

An American astronomer named Edwin Hubble helped prove that our universe is

constantly expanding. The staff at NASA decided to honour him, and on April 24, 1990, the

Hubble Space Telescope was launched via the Space Shuttle Discovery into Earth’s upper

atmosphere. It wasn’t the first space telescope nor is it the most powerful. It is, however, the

most famous example, and its range as well as its versatility is quite impressive. It has provided extremely valuable information on an astronomical level. Many questions have been answered by it and many questions have come up because of it. We have a better idea of how the universe may have formed and it has captured major events like the collision of Shoemaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter.


With the various types of telescopes, we’ve seen things we couldn’t possibly have dreamt of before. Many individuals have shaped it and given it different forms. These individuals deserve our thanks. To Hans Lippershey, Jacob Metius, and Zacharias Janssen, the pioneers. To Galileo Galilei, who helped revolutionize our views on the inner workings of our solar system. To Nicolaus Copernicus, who set forth the heliocentric model which inspired Galileo. To Leonardo Donato, who approved of and sponsored Galileo’s work; Johannes Kepler, who consulted with and endorsed Galileo, and Giovanni Demisiani, who gave the telescope the name we use today. To James Gregory, responsible for the first practical reflecting telescope design, and Robert Hooke, who made that design a reality. To Sir Isaac Newton, to Edwin Hubble, to the staff at NASA, and to everyone else in between the centuries who made a contribution but didn’t fit on this list: thank you.


In this article, we’ve gazed into the past at the minds behind the telescope. There is another

invention though, one that has a shared history and an opposing purpose to the telescope. While the telescope helps us look to the stars, this other device was designed to help us look closely at the things right in front of our noses. In my next article, I’m going to take a closer look at the minds behind the microscope.

Leave a Reply