The telescope – claims and counterclaims

Sometime between the 25thand 29thof September 410 years ago Hans Lipperhey, a spectacle maker from Middelburg in Zeeland, gave the earliest known public demonstration of the telescope to Maurits of Nausau and assembled company at a peace conference in Den Hague.


Source: Wikimedia Commons

His demonstration was recorded in a French newsletter, AMBASSADES DV ROY DE SIAM ENVOYE’ A L’ECELence du Prince Maurice, arriué à la Haye le 10. Septemb. 1608., recording the visit of the ambassador of the King of Siam (Thailand), who was also present at the demonstration.

A few days before the departure of Spinola from The Hague a spectacle-maker from Middelburg, a humble man, very religious & pious, offered His Excellency certain glasses as a present, by which one is able to trace & observe clearly objects at a distance of three or four miles, as if there is a distance as little as one hundred footsteps. From the tower of The Hague with the said glasses one can observe clearly the clock on the tower of Delft, & the windows of the Church of Leiden, despite the fact that one of the said towns is at a distance of one & a half hours and the other one at three and a half hours walking distance. The States-General were already well informed about this and sent them to His Excellency to show, adding that with these glasses one could observe the impostures of the enemy. Spinola also saw them with great astonishment & told Prince Hendrik; from this moment on I will not be safe anymore, because you can observe me from afar. Whereupon the said Prince answered: we will prohibit our people to shoot at you. The craftsman who has manufactured the said glasses has received three hundred écu & he will receive more on condition that he will tell nobody about the said proficiency, which he promised with most pleasure as he doesn’t want the enemy will be able to use this, The said glasses are very useful at sieges & in similar affairs, because one can distinguish from a mile’s distance & beyond several objects very well, as if they are very near & even the stars which normally are not visible for us, because of the scanty proportion and feeble sight of our eyes, can be seen with this instrument.[1]

This was not however the first written account of Lipperhey’s new invention. The Councillors of Zeeland had given him a letter of introduction, dated 25 September, to the States-General in Den Hague, it begins:

The bearer of this, who claims to have a certain device, by means of which all things at a great distance can be seen as if they were nearby, by looking through glasses which he claims to be a new invention, would like to communicate the same to His Excellency [Prince Maurits]. Your Honour will please recommend him to His Excellency, and, as the occasion arises, be helpful to him according to what you think of the device…[2]

On 2 October 1608, Lipperhey submitted an application for a patent for his device to the States-General, from here on things, which had looked so promising for our humble spectacle-maker from Middelburg started to turn decidedly pear shaped.


Hans Lipperhey’s unsuccessfully patent request Source: Wikimedia Commons

On 14 October 1608, an, until now, unidentified young man offered to sell a telescope to the Councillors of Zeeland, who dutifully informed the States-General of this new development. On 15 October the States-General received a 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, so he claimed, was a least as good as the instrument from Middelburg. Given these developments, telescopes were apparently available on every street corner, the States-General denied Lipperhey his desired patent but they did commission him to make six pairs of binoculars for a total of 900 guilders, a very large sum. Interestingly they demanded that the lenses be made of rock crystal rather than glass, because of the poor quality of the glass lenses, something that would remain a problem for telescope makers throughout the seventeenth century.

The problem with who actually invented the telescope does not end there. In his Mundus Jovialis, published in 1614, Simon Marius, one of the earliest telescopic astronomers, recounts how his patron Johan Philip Fuchs von Bimbach was offered a telescope at the Autumn Frankfurt Fair in 1608.


Engraved image of Simon Marius (1573-1624), from his book Mundus Iovialis, 1614 Source: Houghton Library via Wikimedia Commons

He didn’t purchase the proffered instrument because one of the lenses was cracked and the asking price was apparently too high. In many accounts of the invention of the telescope, this story is used as an illustration of how fast the new invention spread after Lipperhey’s unveiling in Den Hague. However, there is a major problem here; the Autumn Fair in Frankfurt in 1608 took place before Lipperhey’s demonstration. We have yet another unclear source for the ‘first telescope’.


Hans Philipp Fuchs von Bimbach Source: Wikimedia Commons

Up till 2008 it had become common practice to claim that the seller in Frankfurt and the unknown young man in Middelburg were one and the same and identified as Zacharias Janssen (1585-pre. 1632) and that he and not Lipperhey was the true inventor of the telescope and for good measure also the microscope.  How this all came about is almost Byzantine.


Zacharias Janssen Source: Wikimedia Commons

In 1655, the French scholar Pierre Borel (c. 1620–1671) published the first full history of the invention of the telescope, De vero telescopii inventore.


De vero telescopii inventore 1665 Title page Source

In his book he followed the account of the Dutch Ambassador to France, Willem Boreel (1591–1668). Born in Middelburg, Boreel had memories of having met the inventor of the telescope in 1610. Not sure of his memory forty-five years later he wrote to a local magistrate in Middelburg to investigate the matter. The magistrate interviewed a then unknown spectacle-maker Johannes Zachariassen, the son of Zacharias Janssen. Johannes claimed that his father and his grandfather had invented the microscope and telescope in 1590. Johannes would also tell a similar story to Isaac Beeckman, when he was teaching him lens grinding, also claiming that he and his father had also invented the long, i.e. astronomical, telescope in 1618. Boreel confirmed Johannes account as agreeing with his memories and Borel’s account that Zacharias Janssen and not Hans Lipperhey was the true inventor of the telescope.


Portrait of Pierre Borel by Jacques Pauthe Source: Wikimedia Commons

The last of Johannes’ claims is easily disposed of because it was Johannes Kepler, who first described the astronomical telescope in his Dioptrice in 1611. As to the other claim in 1590 Johannes’ grandfather was already dead and his father Zacharias was a mere four or five years old. These objections were simply swept aside over the years and Janssen’s invention simply moved forward to 1604 another date claimed by Johannes. However modern research by Huib Zuidervaart into the life of Zacharias Janssen have shown the first contact that he had with lens grinding or spectacle-making was when he became guardian the children of another spectacle-maker ‘Lowys Lowyssen, geseyt Henricxen brilmakers’. There is no other evidence that Zacharias was ever a spectacle-maker.[3]

The unknown youth in Middelburg and the telescope seller in Frankfurt remain unknown and probably forever unknowable.

News of the wonderful new invention spread really fast throughout Europe with telescopes on sale as novelties in Paris by the early summer 1609. The enthusiasm with which the new invention was greeted and the speed with which it spread throughout Europe rather puts the lie to all the competing theories that the telescope was already invented by (insert your favourite candidate) at some date before Lipperhey’s first demonstration. If it had been, we would certainly have heard about it. As far as we know, the first astronomer to make observations with the new instrument was Thomas Harriot, who drew a sketch of the moon observed with a six-power telescope dated 26 July 1609 os (5 August ns).


Harriot’s sketch of the moon 1609

Following on to his encounter with a telescope at the Frankfurt Fair, Fuchs von Bimbach together with Simon Marius obtained, with some difficulty, suitable lenses and the two of them constructed their own telescope. Simon Marius began his own astronomical observations sometime also in 1609. Galileo Galilei heard of the telescope through his friend Paolo Sarpi and it is now thought that his claim that he devised the construction of his telescope purely on the basis of having heard of it is not true and that he had in fact seen and handled a telescope before he began his own efforts at construction.


Galileo Galilei. Portrait by Ottavio Leoni Marucelliana Source: Wikimedia Commons

Galilei/ Fernrohre / Aufnahme

Galileo’s telescopes Source: Wikimedia Commons

Galileo, ever on the look out to make a quick buck and further his career, first marketed ‘his invention’ to the civil authorities, demonstrating a six-power telescope to the aristocrats of Venice 21 August 1609. On the 24thof the month he presented said telescope formally to the Doge and Senate of Venice. The following day the authorities granted him a lifetime contract as professor of mathematics at the university with the extraordinary salary of 1,000 florins p.a. with however the condition that he would never receive another pay rise. The Senate was apparently more than somewhat miffed when they discovered that the telescope was not the invention of their talented mathematics professor but was readily available on every street corner in Europe to knockdown prices. Galileo repaid their generosity by beginning plans to leave Venice and return to Florence.

We don’t know for certain when Galileo began his astronomical observations but we do know that he was an exceptionally talented observer and was soon viewing the skies on clear nights with a twenty-power instrument of his own construction. On 7 January 1610 he knew he had hit the jackpot when he first observed three of the moons of Jupiter. Simon Marius made the same discovery one day later on 8 January. More accurately he realised he had hit the jackpot only a couple of days later when it became clear that what he had discovered were satellites and not fixed stars. Marius waited four years before he published his discovery, Galileo didn’t! He immediately changed from Italian to Latin in his observing blog log and began making plans to publish his telescopic observation before he could be beaten to the gun by some unknown rival.

He decided to dedicate his planned publication to Cosimo II De’ Medici Fourth Grand Duke of Tuscany and started negotiations with the Tuscan Court over which names/names they would prefer for the newly discovered moons. In the end the term Medicean Stars was decided upon and Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius was published with a preface dated forth day before the Ides of March 1610, that’s 12 March in modern money.


Title page of Sidereus nuncius, 1610, by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). *IC6.G1333.610s, Houghton Library, Harvard University Source: Wikimedia Commons

Seldom has a book hit the streets with such an impact. It truly marks the beginning of a new epoch in the history of astronomy and a new phase in the life of its author. Galileo got what he was angling for, he was appointed court mathematicus and philosophicus to the court in Florence and given a professorship at the university without teaching obligations but with a salary of 1,000 florins p.a.

The very poor quality of the glass available to make lenses and the errors in grinding and polishing made it very difficult for observers to see anything at all through the early telescopes, a problem that would continue to plague telescope users throughout the seventeenth century. There were as many claims made for discoveries that didn’t exist as for real ones.  All of this made it difficult for others to confirm Galileo’s spectacular claims. In the end the Jesuit astronomers of the Collegio Romano in Rome were able with much effort and many setbacks to confirm all of his discoveries. In 1611 he made a triumphant tour of Rome, which included a celebration banquet put on by the Jesuits at the Collegio. At a second banquet put on by Prince Frederico Cesi, founder and President of the Accademia dei Lincae of which Galileo would become a member, the telescope first received its name, in Greek teleskopos.

Another central problem in the first months of telescopic astronomical observation was that there existed no scientific explanation of how or why the telescope functions. This allowed critics to reject the discoveries as imaginary artefacts produced by the instrument itself. The man who came to the rescue was Johannes Kepler. Already in 1604 in his Ad Vitellionem Paralipomena Astronomiae pars optica, Kepler had published the first explanation of how lenses focus light rays and how eyeglasses work to compensate for short and long sightedness so he already had a head start on explaining how the telescope functions.

Francesco Maurolico (1494–1575) had covered much of the same ground in his Theoremata de lumine et umbra earlier than Kepler but this work was only published posthumously in 1611, so the priority goes to Kepler.


Source: Wikimedia Common


In 1611 Kepler published his very quickly written Diotrice, in which he covered the path of light rays through single lenses and then through lens combinations. In this extraordinary work he covers the Dutch or Galilean telescope, convex objective–concave eyepiece, the astronomical or Keplerian telescope, convex objective–convex eyepiece, the terrestrial telescope, convex objective–convex eyepiece–convex–field–lens to invert image, and finally for good measure the telephoto lens! Galileo’s response to this masterpiece in the history of geometrical optics was that it was unreadable!


Source: Wikimedia Commons

One small footnote to the whole who–invented–what story is that Kepler attributed the invention of the telescope to Giambattista della Porta (1535?–1615).


Giambattista della Porta Source: Wikimedia Commons

Della Porta did indeed describe the magnifying effect of the lens combination of the Dutch telescope in his Magiae Naturalis(various editions 1558 to 1589).

With a concave you shall see small things afar off, very clearly; with a convex, things neerer to be greater, but more obscurely: if you know how to fit them both together, you shall see both things afar off, and things neer hand, both greater and clearly.

He provided a primitive sketch in a letter to Prince Cesi in 1609.

Della Porta Telescope Sketch

Kepler assumed that the Dutch spectacle-maker, he didn’t know Lipperhey’s name, had somehow learnt of della Porta’s idea and put it into practice. It is more probable that della Porta was actually describing some sort of compound magnifying glass rather than a telescope and that Lipperhey had no idea of della Porta’s work.

Despite the confusion that surrounds the origins of the telescope, today most historians attribute the honours to Hans Lipperhey, whose demonstration set the ball rolling. We have come a long way since Lipperhey demonstrated his simple invention to Prince Maurits in Den Hague. I don’t suppose the humble spectacle–maker from Middelburg could have conceived the revolution in astronomy he set in motion on that day four hundred and ten years ago.

[1]Embassies of the King of Siam Sent to His Excellency Prince Maurits Arrived in The Hague on 10 September 1608,Transcribed from the French original, translated intoEnglish and Dutch, introduced by Henk Zoomers and edited by Huib Zuidervaart after a copy in the Louwman Collection of Historic Telescopes, Wassenaar, 2008 pp. 48-49 (original pagination: 9-11)

[2]Taken from Fred Watson, Stargazer: the life and times of the Telescope, Da Capo Press, Cambridge MA, 2005

[3]For more details of the Dutch story of the invention of the telescope see Huib J. Zuidervaart, The ‘true inventor’ of the telescope. A survey of 400 years of debate, in The origins of the telescope, ed. Albert van Helden, Sven Dupré, Rob van Gent, Huib Zuidervaart, KNAW Press, Amsterdam, 2010



Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Optics, History of science, History of Technology, Renaissance Science, Uncategorized

7 responses to “The telescope – claims and counterclaims

  1. Reblogged this on Project ENGAGE and commented:
    It should be used in a nanomicroscope

  2. gcallah

    “He immediately changed from Italian to Latin in his observing blog…”
    He may not have invented the telescope, but he was the first blogger!

  3. donnamariadigiuseppe

    Check out Sofonisba Anguissola’s 1556 Domincan Astronomer in Sofonisba Anguissola e Le Sue Sorrelle (1994) pp. 20-21.

    • thonyc

      I’m not sure what you want to say and I can’t find a picture of the painting on the Internet. I suspect you think there is a telescope in the picture but it is almost certainly a viewing tube without lenses. They turn up quite often in the Middle Ages.

  4. donnamariadigiuseppe

    I wish I had a better image but her painting of a Dominican Astronomer may be interesting to you. You can see (somewhat poor) images on my recent youtube video around minute 2:20 if you are interested.

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