Teleskopos: How the telescope got its name

My Whewell’s Ghost sister in spirit Rebekah “Becky” Higgitt has left the safe haven of our collective history of science blog and set up shop under the sign of the “Teleskopos”. As she herself writes:

A word on the name of the blog. It is, of course, all fancy-shmancy Greek for telescope. Since I work within an historic observatory, researching its heritage and curating some of its telescopes, it seems fair enough, although I will not be sticking to history of instruments or astronomy. There will also, probably, be very little Greek science, but I liked teleskopos because it clearly shows the etymology: ‘far-seeing’. If an astronomical telescope looks back through time as it peers into space, I hope my own little ‘perspective glass’ will facilitate some sort of view on the past.

In this brief passage she manages to mention three of the names for the telescope, Greek original (to which more in a minute), English translation and the alternative English expression ‘perspective glass’. In the following I shall sketch the historical events that led up to a simple tube with two lenses acquiring the, to quote Becky, ‘fancy-shmancy’ Greek name teleskopos.

In the first historical record of the telescope, a letter of introduction for its inventor, Hans Lipperhey, from the Councillors of Zeeland to the States General in Den Hague, this wonderful invention that would revolutionise astronomy had no name and was referred to as “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…” Not exactly a phrase that rolls off the tongue. In the first printed account of this new invention, a French pamphlet reporting on the visit of the Siamese Ambassador to the Court of Prince Maurice of Nassau during which the telescope was first demonstrated in public, it is just referred to as ‘lunettes’ the French for glasses leading to a possible confusion with ordinary eye glasses or spectacles.

In the early phase of its existence the new instrument acquired the Latin name perspicillum the origin of both the English perspective glass and the spyglass well known to all lovers of novels about seamen and pirates who are all equipped with their spyglasses.

The first telescopic astronomer the English polymath Thomas Harriot when corresponding with his friend and pupil Sir William Lower referred to the new Dutch invention as a perspective trunk. His German contemporary the court astronomer in Ansbach, Simon Marius, writes of an ‘instrumentum belgicum’ commonly called perspicillum. The third of Europe’s pioneering telescopic astronomers Galileo Galilei varies between instrumento, perspicillum and the Italian for glasses, occhiale.

In 1610 when Galileo first published his telescopic discoveries in his Sidereus nuncius he was a 46-year-old North Italian mathematics professor and instrument maker well on the way to obscurity. He enjoyed a good local reputation in a fairly low-grade profession, had no notable publication to his name and had made no significant academic discoveries. If his life had continued along the same lines he would probably have died a fairly insignificant Renaissance scholar but the Sidereus made him an international star over night. The honours followed in quick succession. A life-time contract in Padua with a vastly increased salary, which he dropped in favour of the position as Medici court philosopher for even more money. This was followed by a triumphal journey to Rome where he was honoured at a banquette at the Collegio Romano by the Jesuit mathematicians in 1611. On 14th April of the same year he was guest of honour at a far more prodigious banquette thrown by Prince Frederico Cesi founder and president of the Academy of the Lynxes an exclusion society dedicated to scholarly pursuits to which Galileo would be appointed as a member eleven days later. At this banquette Cesi gave the Dutch instrument that was responsible for Galileo’s rise to fame the name teleskopos, coined by one of the other guests, John Demisiani the Greek court mathematician of the Duke of Gonzaga. The name stuck and became telescopium in Kepler’s Latin, telescopio in Galileo’s Tuscan and telescope in English.

Becky has chosen a name for her blogdrenched in the history of science, a discipline in which she excels, and I wish her at least a part of the longevity and success of Lipperhey’s “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…”


Filed under History of Optics, Renaissance Science

11 responses to “Teleskopos: How the telescope got its name

  1. Pingback: Teleskopos: How the telescope got its name | Whewell's Ghost

  2. Wonderful… as a fan of historical etymology, I really loved this…

  3. Rob Flammang

    Interesting that it wasn’t transliterated into Latin as telescopus, but as telescopium. I wonder at the insertion of of the -i- suffix (infix?). The change in gender, I think I understand.

    • You would have to ask Johannes Kepler as that’s his term. I don’t know if other writers Latinised it differently. It would be an interesting project for a student thesis to go through the contemporary Latin telescope literature and see when people adopted the new name and how they Latinised it.

      Kepler is of course well known for coining new scientific terms, there is a German doctoral thesis, that I haven’t read, on the subject. Two of the terms he coined that are part of everyday language are camara obscura, which is the origin of camara, and satellite.

  4. judithweingarten

    Do you know if Lipperhay described his “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…” in Dutch, French, or Latin? Have you perchance the text (or a reference)?

    • The description is not from Lipperhey himself but from a letter of introduction written by the Committee of Councillors of the States of Zeeland in Middelburg to the Zeeland delegation at the States-General in The Hague 25 September 1608 and it is in Dutch.

      This and all the other documents relating to the early history of the telescope, both in the original languages and English translation, can be found in Albert van Helden, The Invention of the Telescope, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 67, Part 4, 1977, pp 1-67 (the quoted description is on pp 35-36). This work by van Helden is also available as a monograph, but at $30 for 67 pages a bit pricey.

      This is the standard work on the origins of the telescope but it should be pointed out that more recent research has changed parts of the story substantially although not the parts relating to Lipperhey.

  5. judithweingarten

    Thanks for that. I was hoping it was in Dutch … and I should be able to follow up the reference to find out what Lipperhey will have called it himself. Very useful.

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