It was 401 years ago today…

On the 2nd of October 1608 Hans Lipperhey a spectacle maker from Middelburg in Zeeland applied to the States-General (the ruling council of the newly formed United Provinces) for a patent for ‘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’ that he claimed was a new invention. This certain device was of course the telescope and Lipperhey’s patent application marks its official birthday. It was however not the first written record of the existence of the telescope, one week before on 25th of September the Council of Zeeland had written a letter of introduction to Zeeland’s delegates to the States-General requesting them to arrange an audience for Lipperhey with Prince Maurice of Nassau the Commander in Chief of the Dutch Armed Forces so that he could demonstrate his new device and some historians therefore prefer this date as the official birthday of the telescope. The telescope is lucky it has two birthdays.

Between the 25th of September and his patent application Lipperhey had got his audience and could demonstrate his new device to Maurice who was not only the most powerful political figure in the United Provinces but also a dedicated fan and supporter of science and technology who employed one of the leading European mathematicians Simon Stevin as his scientific advisor. We know of this demonstration because as Lipperhey arrived in Den Hague a peace conference was taking place in the war between the United Provinces and Spain and this peace conference also coincided with the visit to Maurice’s Court of the Ambassador of Siam. The Ambassador’s visit was documented in a French flyer (this is before the establishment of regular newspapers) that also contains an account of Lipperhey’s very impressive demonstration. Through this flyer news of the new invention spread very rapidly throughout Europe.

However despite the success of his demonstration Lipperhey was in the end not grated his patent, why? On the 14th of October an unidentified young man offered to sell a telescope to the Council of Zeeland without requesting a patent; obviously Lipperhey was not the only lens maker who possessed the secret of how to manufacture telescopes. Even worse on the 17th of October Jacob Adriaenzoon, known as Metius, a spectacle maker from Alkmaar also applied for a patent claiming that his device, on which he had been working for more than two years, was at least as good as that from Middelburg. Under these circumstances the States-General refused to grant a patent for an instrument that could apparently be bought on every street corner.

The literature on the history of the telescope has identified the young man as Sacharias Janssen on the very shaky and contradictory testimony of his son Johannes Sachariassen. In 1634 Johannes told Isaac Beeckman, whom he was teaching lens grinding, that his father had constructed his first telescope in 1604 but that he did not invent it but copied it from an earlier Italian device. However when questioned in 1655 by the Middelburg Town Council, who had been commissioned by the Dutch Ambassador to France to clarify the origins of the telescope, Johannes now claimed that his father had invented the telescope in 1590 and that he and his father had invented the “long” telescope (that is the Keplerian or astronomical telescope) in 1618. He also said that he was now 52 years old whereas he was in fact only 41. He did this because in 1618 he was only 9 years old and it would have been very unlikely that he was involved in the invention of anything at that age. In fact the astronomical telescope was invented in 1611 by Kepler as its alternative name implies and these are not the only implausible claims in Johannes’ statement. In 1590 his father was only 2 years old!

Despite these inconsistencies in the testimony of his son Sacharias Janssen was officially recognised as the inventor of the telescope in Holland and a statue was erected in his memory. The reason why Janssen received this honour and not Lipperhey was an unfortunate case of nationalism; Janssen was a Dutchman whereas Lipperhey was born in the German town of Wesel. Modern research carried out by Huib Zuidervaart of the Huygens Institute in Den Hague have revealed that the first contact that Janssen had with the profession of spectacle making was in 1616 when he adopted the children of a spectacle maker who had died and thus he could not have been involved in the invention of the telescope. Zuidervaart has also unearthed new information on Metius and all of this will be published in the report from the conference held in Middelburg to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the invention of the telescope in 2008. (This is cutting edge information in the history of optics and remember you read it here first.)

This is however not the end of the story or the confusion concerning the origins of the telescope. In his book from 1614 Mundus Jovialis Simon Marius the Court Astronomer from Ansbach in Franconia reports that his friend Johannes Philipp Fuchs von Bimbach was offered a telescope at the Book Fair in Frankfurt in 1608. Many authors, without checking the facts, take this as an indication of how fast the news of the telescope had spread after Lipperhey’s demonstration in Den Hague. Unfortunately for this theory the Frankfurt Fair in 1608 was about a week before Lipperhey’s performance for Maurice and his guests making for another unknown purveyor of telescopes in the autumn of 1608.

The general position among historian of the telescope today is that Lipperhey made the first patent application and therefore he is the official inventor of the telescope and so we celebrate the 401st birthday of his device today.

Niall at weareinthegutter has a post that draws attention to an interesting article on early depictions of the telescope in the paintings of Jan Brueghel

1 Comment

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

One response to “It was 401 years ago today…

  1. Pingback: One day later | The Renaissance Mathematicus

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