A Telescope Chronology:

On 25th August Google celebrated the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first public presentation of his telescope an anniversary that is also commented upon in the latest addition of the Guardian Weekly, a compendium of the English daily newspaper The Guardian for ex-patriots like myself. It’s kind of nice to see the world paying a bit of attention to the history of astronomy but unfortunately they both got the date wrong! I suspect that both of them relied on the same news agency report and didn’t bother to check the facts. Well for those that care and even for those that don’t I have put together a short chronology of the early days of the telescope.

25th September 1608: Letter of introduction from the Council of Zeeland to Zeeland’s Delegates to the States General (the Netherlands parliament) in Den Haag asking them to organise an audience with Prince Maurice of Nassau for a spectacle maker from Middelburg who had invented a “…certain device by means of which all things at a very great distance can be seen as if they were nearby, by looking through glasses…”; the oldest written mention of the telescope.

On an unknown day between 25th and 29th September: Hans Lipperhey (1570 – 1619) the spectacle maker from Middelburg (who was actually a German from Wesel) demonstrates his new invention at the court of Prince Maurice, where a peace conference in the Dutch-Spanish War is taking place along with the first visit to Europe of the Ambassador of Siam. Lipperhey’s demonstration is described in detail in a French flyer describing the Ambassadors visit and the news of the new invention is thus spread rapidly throughout Europe.

2nd October 1608: Lipperhey applies to the States General for a Patent for his device.


Lipperhey’s Patent Application


14th October 1608: An, until now, unidentified young man offers to sell a telescope to the Council of Zeeland.

15th October 1608: Letter from Jacob Adriaenszoon (after 1571 – 1628) called Metius a spectacle maker from Alkmaar also requesting a patent for his instrument on which he had been working for two years and which was at least as good as the instrument from Middelburg.

1614: Simon Marius publishes his Mundus jovialis in which he writes that his friend Johann Philip Fuchs von Bimbach (isn’t that a wonderful name?) was offered a telescope at the Autumn Frankfurt Fair in 1608. This story is often told in the literature as a proof of how quickly the new invention spread after Lipperhey’s demonstration. Unfortunately the Autumn Frankfurt Fair in 1608 took place shortly before Lipperhey’s demonstration.

26th July 1609 Julian calendar (5th August 1609 Gregorian calendar): Thomas Harriot (1560 – 1621) makes a sketch of the moon using a telescope.

21st August 1609: Galileo demonstrates his telescope to the aristocrats of Venice.

24th August 1609: Galileo presents his telescope to the Doge and Senate of Venice.

25th August 1609: Galileo is granted a lifetime contract as professor for mathematics at the University of Padua with a salary of 1000 Florins but with the subsidiary clause that he would never receive a raise in salary.

When Galileo first used a telescope as an astronomical instrument is not known but it was at least a couple of months later.

It is highly probable that Simon Marius (1573 – 1624) court astronomer in Ansbach Franconia used a telescope as an astronomical instrument before Galileo but it is not possible to determine when.

7th January 1610: Galileo discovers the first three moons of Jupiter.

8th January 1610: Marius discovers the first three moons of Jupiter independently of Galileo.


Filed under History of Astronomy, Myths of Science, Renaissance Science

13 responses to “A Telescope Chronology:

  1. Cool! I wish you’d had this up when I wrote my Galileo article back in February!

    Cheers for the Labor Day Weekend (or the equivalent on your side of the pond…)

  2. It might also be worth mentioning here the contentious debate about whether or not Leonardo did any work in the area.

    It’s also worth mentioning Kepler’s 1604 study Astronomiae Pars Optica relating to the use of mirrors in this area.

    These should be read within a framework of earlier experiments such as Grosseteste’s thirteeth century de iride, and several sixteenth century workers, in particular Giambaptista della Porta who seems to have fed Galileo many of his ideas. If in Florence, go see the Galileo museum behind the Uffizi – they’re doing work there until 2010.

    It is also to be noted that Drebbel was in Middelburg between 1600 and 1604, where he learned lensmaking from Lipperhey, suggesting this work may have been earlier than you suggest.

    On a more conjectural basis, it has been suggested that certain images of the Hypnertomachia Poliphilia relate to both microscopes and telescopes.

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  8. FrankB

    “who was actually a German from Wesel”
    Germany did not exist in 1608 CE nor in 1570. Wesel belonged to the Dutchy of Jülich-Cleves-Berg, which had borders with and good political relations with the Dutchy of Guelders – one of the seven provinces that formed the Dutch Republic several years after Lippershey was born. The famous Country of Holland and the mentioned County of Zeeland were two of the others.
    Today it takes less than half an hour from Wesel to the Netherlands whether driving to the north, to the west or to the southwest.
    Of course you could also say that Maurits, Prince of Orange (from 1618 on), was both German (born in Dillenburg) and French (yup – Orange refers to the famous city in that country). Both cities are a lot further from the Dutch border than Wesel.
    Lesson learned: Lippershey invented the thing and nationalism is silly. So I proudly present the least nationalistic national anthem in the entire world:

    William of Nassau, scion of a German and ancient line,
    Dedicate undying faith to this land of mine.
    A prince I am, undaunted, of Orange, ever free,
    To the king of Spain I’ve granted a lifelong loyalty.

    The Dutch father of fatherland became a traitor when taking up Dutch leadership (according to 19th and early 20th Century standards).

    • thonyc

      At no point in my blog post did or do I claim that Germany existed as a country in 1608. However, none of your extended waffle actually changes the historical fact that Hans Lipperhey was a German born in Wessel. This statement has absolutely nothing to do with nationalism. However despite your denial it would seem that nationalism is important to you!

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