Category Archives: History of Optics

The Jesuit Mirror Man

Although the theory that a curved mirror can focus an image was already known to Hero of Alexandria in antiquity and also discussed by Leonardo in his unpublished writings; as far as we know, the first person to attempt to construct a reflecting telescope was the Italian Jesuit Niccolò Zucchi.


Niccolò Zucchi Source: Wikimedia Commons

Niccolò Zucchi, born in Parma 6 December 1586, was the fourth of eight children of the aristocrat Pierre Zucchi and his wife Francoise Giande Marie. He studied rhetoric in Piacenza and philosophy and theology in Parma, probably in Jesuit colleges. He entered the Jesuit order as a novice 28 October 1602, aged 16. Zucchi taught mathematics, rhetoric and theology at the Collegio Romano and was then appointed rector of the new Jesuit College in Ravenna by Cardinal Alessandro Orsini, who was also a patron of Galileo.

In 1623 he accompanied Orsini, the Papal legate, on a visit to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II in Vienna. Here he met and got to know Johannes Kepler the Imperial Mathematicus. Kepler encouraged Zucchi’s interest in astronomy and the two corresponded after Zucchi’s return to Italy. Later when Kepler complained about his financial situation, Zucchi sent him a refracting telescope at the suggestion of Paul Guldin (1577–1643) a Swiss Jesuit mathematician, who also corresponded regularly with Kepler. Kepler mentions this gift in his Somnium. These correspondences between Kepler and leading Jesuit mathematicians illustrate very clearly how the scientific scholars in the early seventeenth century cooperated with each other across the religious divide, even at the height of the Counter Reformation.

Zucchi’s scientific interests extended beyond astronomy; he wrote and published two books on the philosophy of machines in 1646 and 1649. His unpublished Optica statica has not survived. He also wrote about magnetism, barometers, where he a good Thomist rejected the existence of a vacuum, and was the first to demonstrate that phosphors generate rather than store light.

Today, however Zucchi is best remember for his astronomy. He is credited with being the first, together with the Jesuit Daniello Bartoli (1608–1685), to observe the belts of Jupiter on 17 May 1630.  He reported observing spots on Mars in 1640. These observations were made with a regular Galilean refractor but it is his attempt to construct a reflecting telescope that is most fascinating.

In his Optica philosophia experimentis et ratione a fundamentis constituta published in 1652 he describes his attempt to create a reflecting telescope.


Optica philosophia title page Source: Linder Hall Library

As I said at the beginning, and have described in greater detail here, the principle that one could create an image with a curved mirror had been known since antiquity. Zucchi tells us that he replaced the convex objective lens in a Galilean telescope with bronze curved mirror. He tried viewing the image with the eyepiece, a concave lens looking down the tube into the mirror. He had to tilt the tube so as not to obstruct the light with his head. He was very disappointed with the result as the image was just a blur, although as he said the mirror was, “ab experto et accuratissimo artifice eleboratum nactus.” Or in simple words, the mirror was very well made by an expert.


Optica philosophia frontispiece

Zucchi had stumbled on a problem that was to bedevil all the early attempts to construct a reflecting telescope. Mirror that don’t distort the image are much harder to grind and polish than lenses. (The bending of light in a lens diminishes the effect of imperfections, whereas a mirror amplifies them). The first to solve this problem was Isaac Newton, proving that he was as skilled a craftsman as he was a great thinker. However, it would be more that fifty years before John Hadley could consistently repeat Newton’s initial success.

All the later reflecting telescope models had, as well as their primary mirrors, a secondary mirror at the focal point that reflected the image either to the side (a Newtonian), or back through the primary mirror (a Gregorian or a Cassegrain) to the eyepiece; the Zucchi remained the only single mirror telescope in the seventeenth century.

In the eighteenth century William Herschel initially built and used Newtonians but later he constructed two massive reflecting telescopes, first a twenty-foot and then a second forty-foot instrument.


Herschel’s Grand Forty feet Reflecting Telescopes A hand-coloured illustration of William Herschel’s massive reflecting telescope with a focal length of forty feet, which was erected at his home in Slough. Completed in 1789, the telescope became a local tourist attraction and was even featured on Ordnance Survey maps. By 1840, however, it was no longer used and was dismantled, although part of it is now on display at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. This image of the telescope was engraved for the Encyclopedia Londinensis in 1819 as part of its treatment of optics. Herschel’s Grand Forty feet Reflecting Telescopes Source: Wikimedia Commons

These like Zucchi’s instrument only had a primary mirror with Herschel viewing the image with a hand held eyepiece from the front of the tube. As we name telescopes after their initial inventors Herschel giant telescopes are Zucchis, although I very much doubt if he even knew of the existence of his Jesuit predecessor, who had died at the grand old age of eighty-three in 1670.




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

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

Today in something is wrong on the Internet

When I was growing up one of the most widespread #histSTM myths, along with the claim that people in the Middle Ages believed the world was flat and Stone Age people lived in holes in the ground, was that Galileo Galilei invented the telescope. This myth actually has an interesting history that goes all the way back to the publication of the Sidereus Nuncius. Some of Galileo’s critics misinterpreting what he had written asserted that he was claiming to have invented the telescope, an assertion that Galileo strongly denied in a latter publication. Whatever, as I said when I was growing up it was common knowledge that Galileo had invented the telescope. During the 1960s and 1970s as history of science slowly crept out of its niche and became more public and more popular this myth was at some point put out of its misery and buried discretely, where, I thought, nobody would find it again. I was wrong.

When I wrote my essay on the origins of the reflecting telescope for the online journal AEON, my editor, Corey Powell, who is himself a first class science writer and an excellent editor, asked me to provide a list of reference books to help speed up the process of fact checking my essay. I was more than happy to oblige, as even more embarrassing than a fact checker finding a factual error in what I had written, and yes even I make mistakes, would be a reader finding a real clangour after my essay had been published. As it turned out I hadn’t made any mistakes or if I did nobody has noticed yet. Imagine my surprise when I read an essay published two days ago on AEON that stated Galileo had invented the telescope. Hadn’t it been fact checked? Or if so, didn’t the fact checker know that this was a myth?

The essay in question is titled Forging Islamic Science and was written by Nir Shafir and edited by Sally Davies. The offending claim was at the beginning of the second paragraph:

Besides the colours being a bit too vivid, and the brushstrokes a little too clean, what perturbed me were the telescopes. The telescope was known in the Middle East after Galileo invented it in the 17th century, but almost no illustrations or miniatures ever depicted such an object.

I tweeted the following to both the author’s and AEON’s Twitter accounts:

If the author is complaining about forgers getting historical details wrong he really shouldn’t write, “The telescope was known in the Middle East after Galileo invented it in the 17th century…”

The author obviously didn’t understand my criticism and tweeted back:

There are references to the use of telescopes for terrestrial observations, mainly military, in the Ottoman Empire, such as in evliya çelebi.

I replied:

Galileo did not invent the telescope! He wasn’t even the first astronomer to use one for astronomical observations!

Whereupon Sally Davies chimed in with the following:

Thank you for drawing this to our attention! A bit of ambiguity here; we have tweaked the wording to say he ‘developed’ the telescope.

Sorry but no ambiguity whatsoever, Galileo did not in anyway invent the telescope and as I will explain shortly ‘developed’ is just as bad.

Today the author re-entered the fray with the following:

Thank you for bringing this up. It’s always good to get the minor details right.

The invention of the telescope is one of the most significant moments in the whole history of science and technology, so attributing its invention to the completely false person is hardly a minor detail!

About that ‘developed’. A more recent myth, which has grown up around Galileo and his use of the telescope, is that he did something special in some sort of way to turn this relatively new invention into a scientific instrument usable for astronomical observations. He didn’t. The telescope that Galileo used to discover the Moons of Jupiter differed in no way either scientifically or technologically from the one that Hans Lipperhey demonstrated to the assembled prominence at the peace conference in Den Hague sometime between the 25thand 29thof September 1608. Lipperhey’s invention was even pointed at the night sky, “and 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]

Both instruments consisted of a tube with a biconvex or plano-convex objective lens at one end and a bi-concave or plano-concave eyepiece lens at the other end. The eyepiece lens also had a mask or stop to cut down the distortion caused around the edges of the lens. The only difference was in the focal lengths of the lenses used producing different magnitudes of magnification. Galileo’s use of other lenses to increase magnification was nothing special; it had been done earlier than Galileo by Thomas Harriot and at least contemporaneous if not earlier by Simon Marius. It was also done by numerous others, who constructed telescopes independently in those first few years of telescopic astronomical observation. The claims that Galileo had developed, improved, specialised, etc., etc., the telescope are merely mythological elements of the more general Galileo hagiography. Modern research has even revealed that contrary to his own claims Galileo probably did not (re)-construct the telescope purely from having heard reports about it but had almost certainly seen and handled one before he attempted to construct one himself.

Going back to the offending AEON essay, Sally Davies could have saved herself and Nir Sharfir if she had simply changed the sentence to:

The telescope was known in the Middle East after it was invented  in the late 16th early 17th century…(even I make mistakes)

What I intended to write before my brain threw a wobbly was:

The telescope was known in the Middle East after it was invented in late 1608…

 She doesn’t even need to mention Lipperhey’s name if she wants to avoid the on going debates about who really did invent the telescope.








[1]Embassies of the King of Siam Sent to His Excellency Prince Maurits, Arrived in The Hague on 10 September 1608


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

Christmas Trilogy 2017 Part 1: Isaac the Imperator

Isaac Newton came from a fairly humble although not poor background. His father was a yeoman farmer in Lincolnshire, who unfortunately died before he was born. A yeoman farmer owned his own land and in fact the Newton’s were the occupants of the manor house of Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth.

Woolsthorpe Manor, Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth, Lincolnshire, England. This house was the birthplace and the family home of Isaac Newton.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Destined to become a farmer until he displayed little aptitude for life on the land, his mother was persuaded by the local grammar school master to let him complete his education and he was duly dispatched off to Cambridge University in 1661. Although anything but poor, when Newton inherited the family estates they generated an income of £600 per annum, at a time when the Astronomer Royal received an income of £100 per annum, his mother enrolled him at Cambridge as a subsizar, that is a student who earned his tuition by working as a servant. I personally think this reflects the family’s puritan background rather than any meanness on the mother’s part.

In 1664 Newton received a scholarship at Trinity and in 1667 he became a fellow of the college. In 1669 he was appointed Lucasian professor of mathematics. Cambridge was in those days a small market town and a bit of a backwater. The university did not enjoy a good reputation and the Lucasian professorship even less of one. Newton lived in chambers in Trinity College and it was certainly anything but a life of luxury.

Trinity College Great Court
Source: Wikimedia Commons

There is an amusing anecdote about David Hilbert writing to the authorities of Trinity at the beginning of the twentieth century to complain about the fact that Godfrey Hardy, whom he regarded as one of the greatest living mathematicians, was living in what he regarded as a squalid room without running water or adequate heating. What Hilbert didn’t realise was that Hardy would never give up this room because it was the one that Newton had inhabited.

Newton remained an obscure and withdrawn Cambridge don until he presented the Royal Society with his reflecting telescope and published his first paper on optics in 1672. Although it established his reputation, Newton was anything but happy about the negative reactions to his work and withdrew even further into his shell. He only re-emerged in 1687 and then with a real bombshell his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, which effectively established him overnight as Europe’s leading natural philosopher, even if several of his major competitors rejected his gravitational hypothesis of action at a distance.

Having gained fame as a natural philosopher Newton, seemingly having tired of the provinces, began to crave more worldly recognition and started to petition his friends to help him find some sort of appropriate position in London. His lobbying efforts were rewarded in 1696 when his friend and ex-student, Charles Montagu, 1st Earl of Halifax, had him appointed to the political sinecure, Warden of the Mint.

Newton was no longer a mere university professor but occupant of one of the most important political sinecures in London. He was also a close friend of Charles Montagu one of the most influential political figures in England. By the time Montagu fell from grace Newton was so well established that it had little effect on his own standing. Although Montagu’s political opponents tried to bribe him to give up his, now, Mastership of the Mint he remained steadfast and his fame was such that there was nothing they could do to remove him from office. They wanted to give the post to one of their own. Newton ruled the Mint with an iron hand like a despot and it was not only here that the humble Lincolnshire farm lad had given way to man of a completely different nature.

As a scholar, Newton held court in the fashionable London coffee houses, surrounded by his acolytes, for whom the term Newtonians was originally minted, handing out unpublished manuscripts to the favoured few for their perusal and edification. Here he was king of the roost and all of London’s intellectual society knew it.

He became President of the Royal Society in 1703 and here with time his new personality came to the fore. When he became president the society had for many years been served by absentee presidents, office holders in name only, and the power in the society lay not with the president but with the secretary. When Newton was elected president, Hans Sloane was secretary and had already been so for ten years and he was not about to give up his power to Newton. There then followed a power struggle, mostly behind closed doors, until Newton succeeded in gaining power in about 1610 1710, Sloane, defeated resigned from office in 1613 1713 but got his revenge by being elected president on Newton’s death. Now Newton let himself be almost literally enthroned as ruler of the Royal Society.

Isaac Newton’s portrait as Royal Society President Charles Jervas 1717
Source: Royal Society

The president of the society sat at table on a raised platform and on 20 January 1711 the following Order of the Council was made and read to the members at the next meeting.

That no Body Sit at the Table but the President at the head and the two Secretaries towards the lower end one on the one Side and the other Except Some very Honoured Stranger, at the discretion of the President.

When the society was first given its royal charter in 1660, although Charles II gave them no money he did give them an old royal mace as a symbol of their royal status. Newton established the custom that the mace was only displayed on the table when the president was in the chair. When Sloane became president his first act was to decree that the mace was to be displayed at all meetings, whether the president was present or not. Newton ruled over the meetings with the same iron hand with which he ruled over the Mint. Meeting were conducted solemnly with no chit chat or other disturbances as William Stukeley put it:

Indeed his presence created a natural awe in the assembly; they appear’d truly as a venerable consessus Naturae Consliariorum without any levity or indecorum.

Perhaps Newton’s view of himself in his London years in best reflected in his private habitat. Having lived the life of a bachelor scholar in college chambers for twenty odd years he now obtained a town house in London. He installed his niece Catherine Barton, who became a famous society beauty, as his housekeeper and lived the life of a London gentleman, albeit a fairly quiet one. However his personal furnishings seem to me to speak volumes about how he now viewed himself. When he died an inventory of his personal possessions was made for the purpose of valuation, as part of his testament. On the whole his household goods were ordinary enough with one notable exception. He possessed crimson draperies, a crimson mohair bed with crimson curtains, crimson hangings, a crimson settee. Crimson was the only colour mentioned in the inventory. He lived in an atmosphere of crimson. Crimson is of course the colour of emperors, of kings, of potentates and of cardinals. Did the good Isaac see himself as an imperator in his later life?


All the quotes in this post are taken from Richard S, Westfall’s excellent Newton biography Never at Rest.




Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Mathematics, History of Optics, History of Physics, History of science, Newton

Why doesn’t he just shut up?

Neil deGrasse Tyson (NdGT), probably the most influential science communicator in the world, spends a lot of time spouting out the message that learning science allows you to better detect bullshit, charlatans, fake news etc. etc. However it apparently doesn’t enable you to detect bullshit in the history of science, at least judging by NdGT’s own record on the subject. Not for the first time, I was tempted recently to throw my computer through the window upon witnessing NdGT pontificating on the history of science.

On a recent video recorded for Big Think, and also available on Youtube and already viewed by 2.6 million sycophants, he answers the question “Who’s the greatest physicist in history?” His answer appears under the title My Man, Sir Isaac Newton. Thoughtfully, Big Think have provided a transcription of NdGT’s blathering that I reproduce below for your delectation before I perform a Hist_Sci Hulk autopsy upon it.

Question: Who’s the greatest physicist in history?DeGrasse Tyson:    Isaac Newton.  I mean, just look… You read his writings.  Hair stands up… I don’t have hair there but if I did, it would stand up on the back of my neck.  You read his writings, the man was connected to the universe in ways that I never seen another human being connected.  It’s kind of spooky actually.  He discovers the laws of optics, figured out that white light is composed of colors.  That’s kind of freaky right there.  You take your colors of the rainbow, put them back together, you have white light again.  That freaked out the artist of the day.  How does that work?  Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet gives you white.  The laws of optics.  He discovers the laws of motion and the universal law of gravitation.  Then, a friend of his says, “Well, why do these orbits of the planets… Why are they in a shape of an ellipse, sort of flattened circle?  Why aren’t… some other shape?”  He said, you know, “I can’t… I don’t know.  I’ll get back to you.”  So he goes… goes home, comes back couple of months later, “Here’s why.  They’re actually conic sections, sections of a cone that you cut.”  And… And he said, “Well, how did find this out?  How did you determine this?”  “Well, I had to invent integral and differential calculus to determine this.”  Then, he turned 26.  Then, he turned 26.  We got people slogging through calculus in college just to learn what it is that Isaac Newtown invented on a dare, practically.  So that’s my man, Isaac Newton. 


Let us examine the actual history of science content of this stream of consciousness bullshit. We get told, “He discovers the laws of optic…!” Now Isaac Newton is indeed a very important figure in the history of physical optics but he by no means discovered the laws of optics. By the time he started doing his work in optics he stood at the end of a two thousand year long chain of researchers, starting with Euclid in the fourth century BCE, all of whom had been uncovering the laws of optics. This chain includes Ptolemaeus, Hero of Alexandria, al-Kindi, Ibn al-Haytham, Ibn Sahl, Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, John Pecham, Witelo, Kamal al-Din al-Farisi, Theodoric of Freiberg, Francesco Maurolico, Giovanni Battista Della Porta, Friedrich Risner, Johannes Kepler, Thomas Harriot, Marco Antonio de Dominis, Willebrord Snellius, René Descartes, Christiaan Huygens, Francesco Maria Grimaldi, Robert Hooke, James Gregory and quite a few lesser known figures, much of whose work Newton was well acquainted with. Here we have an example of a generalisation that is so wrong it borders on the moronic.

What comes next is on safer ground, “…figured out that white light is composed of colors…” Newton did in fact, in a series of groundbreaking experiment, do exactly that. However NdGT, like almost everybody else is apparently not aware that Newton was by no means the first to make this discovery. The Bohemian Jesuit scholar Jan Marek (or Marcus) Marci (1595–1667) actually made this discovery earlier than Newton but firstly his explanation of the phenomenon was confused and largely wrong and secondly almost nobody knew of his work so the laurels go, probably correctly, to Newton.

NdGT’s next statement is for a physicist quite simply mindboggling he says, “That freaked out the artist of the day.  How does that work?  Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet gives you white.” Apparently NdGT is not aware of the fact that the rules for mixing coloured light and those for mixing pigments are different. I got taught this in primary school; NdGT appears never to have learnt it.

Up next are Newton’s contributions to mechanics, “He discovers the laws of motion and the universal law of gravitation.  Then, a friend of his says, “Well, why do these orbits of the planets… Why are they in a shape of an ellipse, sort of flattened circle?  Why aren’t… some other shape?”  He said, you know, “I can’t… I don’t know.  I’ll get back to you.”  So he goes… goes home, comes back couple of months later, “Here’s why.  They’re actually conic sections, sections of a cone that you cut.””

Where to begin? First off Newton did not discover either the laws of motion or the law of gravity. He borrowed all of them from others; his crowing achievement lay not in discovering them but in the way that he combined them. The questioning friend was of course Edmond Halley in what is one of the most famous and well document episodes in the history of physics, so why can’t NdGT get it right? What Halley actually asked was, assuming an inverse squared law of attraction what would be the shape of aa planetary orbit? This goes back to a question posed earlier by Christopher Wren in a discussion with Halley and Robert Hooke, “would an inverse squared law of attraction lead to Kepler’s laws of planetary motion?” Halley could not solve the problem so took the opportunity to ask Newton, at that time an acquaintance rather than a friend, who supposedly answered Halley’s question spontaneously with, “an ellipse.” Halley then asked how he knew it and Newton supposedly answered, “I have calculated it.” Newton being unable to find his claimed calculation sent Halley away and after some time supplied him with the nine-page manuscript De motu corporum in gyrum, which in massively expanded form would become Newton’s Principia.

NdGT blithely ignoring the, as I’ve said, well documented historical facts now continues his #histsigh fairy story, “And he said, “Well, how did find this out?  How did you determine this?”  “Well, I had to invent integral and differential calculus to determine this.”” This is complete an utter bullshit! This is in no way what Newton did and as such he also never claimed to have done it. In fact one of the most perplexing facts in Newton’s biography is that although he was a co-discoverer/co-inventor of the calculus (we’ll ignore for the moment the fact that even this is not strictly true, read the story here) there is no evidence that he used calculus to write Principia.

NdGT now drops his biggest historical clangour! He says, “Then, he turned 26.  Then, he turned 26.  We got people slogging through calculus in college just to learn what it is that Isaac Newtown invented on a dare, practically.  So that’s my man, Isaac Newton.” Newton was twenty-six going on twenty seven when he carried out the optics research that led to his theory of colours in 1666-67 but the episode with Halley concerning the shape of planetary orbits took place in 1682 when he was forty years old and he first delivered up De motu corporum in gyrum two years later in 1684. NdGT might, as an astro-physicist, be an expert on a telescope but he shouldn’t telescope time when talking about historical events.


Filed under History of Optics, History of science, Myths of Science, Newton

Bringing the heavens down to earth

The Frisian Protestant pastor and amateur astronomer, David Fabricius, was beaten to death by one of his parishioners on 7 May 1617. Because he corresponded with both Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler and was quite a significant figure in Early Modern astronomy the Society for the History of Astronomy had a short post on Facebook commemorating his death on last Sunday, which contained the following claim:

David Fabricius was, following Galileo’s lead, one of the early users of the telescope in astronomy[1]

This claim contains two factual errors. The first is that it was Johannes, David’s son, who introduced the telescope into the Fabricius household and not David, although David soon joined his son in his telescopic observations. I’ll explain further later.

The Fabricii, father and son, remain largely unknown to the world at large but a monument to them both was erected in the churchyard in Osteel, where David had been village pastor, in 1895.

The second error is more serious because it indirectly perpetuates a widespread myth concerning the introduction of the telescope into astronomy and Galileo’s role in it. There is a popular perception that Galileo, and only Galileo, had the genius, the wit, the vision to realise that the newly invented telescope could be used as an astronomical instrument and that he singlehandedly pioneered this new discipline, telescopic astronomy. This is of course complete rubbish and seriously distorts the early history of the telescope in astronomy and does a major disservice to all of the others who contributed to that early history. I will admit to having done a small fist pump when I read the following in John Heilbron’s Galileo biography:

The transformation of the Dutch gadget into an instrument powerful to discover novelties in the heavens did not require a Galileo. His unique strength lay in interpreting what he saw.[2]

That the telescope could be used as an astronomical instrument was recognised during its very first public demonstration by its inventor, the German/Dutch spectacle maker Hans Lipperhey, which took place at the court of Prince Maurice of Nassau in Den Haag during the Dutch-Spanish Peace Conference on an unknown day between 25 and 29 September 1608. We have a detailed account of this demonstration from a French flyer or newsletter describing the first visit of the Ambassador of Siam to Europe, the Ambassador being present at the demonstration. Through this flyer the news of the new invention spread rapidly throughout Europe. Amongst the other descriptions of the wonderful abilities of this “…device by means of which all things at a very great distance can be seen as if they were nearby, by looking through glasses…” we can read the following:

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 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. [my emphasis]

The first astronomer to build and use a telescope as an astronomical instrument was Thomas Harriot, who drew a sketch of the moon using a telescope on 26 July 1609 before Galileo even had a telescope.

Thomas Harriot’s 1609 telescopic sketch of the moon

This of course raises the question where Harriot obtained his knowledge of this instrument. In the early phase of the telescopes existence it became a common habit to present heads of state and other worthies telescopes as presents. In England James I (VI of Scotland) was presented with one at the end of an elaborate masque created for the occasion by Ben Jonson, the Renaissance playwright. The telescope was obtained from the United Provinces through the offices of Cornelis Drebbel, the Dutch inventor and scholar, who was employed at James’ court. This telescope was probably Harriot’s, who enjoyed good connections to court circles, introduction to the instrument.

Portrait often claimed to be Thomas Harriot (1602), which hangs in Oriel College, Oxford. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Harriot did not observe alone. In London he observed together with his instrument maker Christopher Tooke in London, whilst Harriot’s pupil the landowner and MP, Sir William Lower observed in Wales, together with his neighbour John Prydderch, with a telescope made by Harriot and Tooke. Each pair took turns in observing comparing their results and then Harriot and Lower compared results by letter. This meant that they could be reasonably certain that what they had observed was real and not some optical artefacts produced by the poor quality of the lenses they were using. So here we have four telescopic astronomical observers independent of Galileo’s activities.

In Franconia Simon Marius also built and used telescopes in 1609, at the time unaware of the similar activities of Galileo in Padua. As I have written in another blog post Marius discovered the four largest moons of Jupiter just one day later and independently of Galileo. Marius also made the first telescopic observations of the Andromeda Nebula, significant because the Andromeda Nebula would later become the first galaxy to be recognised as a galaxy outside of our galaxy.

Simon Marius frontispiece from his Mundus Jovialis

Another telescopic pioneer in Southern Germany was the Jesuit astronomer in Ingolstadt, Christoph Scheiner, who famously became embroiled in a dispute with Galileo over who had first observed sunspots with a telescope and what exactly they were.

Christoph Scheinet (artist unknown)

The dispute was rather pointless, as Harriot had actually observed sunspots earlier than both of them and Johannes Fabricius, to whom we will turn next, had already published a report on his sunspot observations unknown to the two adversaries. Christoph Scheiner and his assistant, another Jesuit astronomer, Johann Baptist Cysat, would go on to make several important contributions to telescopic astronomy.

Johann Baptist Cysat, holding a Jacob’s staff

Johannes Fabricius brought his telescope home from the University of Leiden, where he had almost certainly learnt of this instrument through the lectures of Rudolph Snel van Royan, professor of mathematics and father of the better know Willibrord Snel of Snell’s law of refraction fame. Rudolph Snel van Royan was probably the first university professor to lecture on the telescope as a scientific instrument already in 1610.

Rudolph Snel van Royan
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It is also known that Cort Aslakssøn and Christian Longomontanus acquired lenses and built their own telescopes in the first couple of years of telescopic astronomy in Copenhagen, but unfortunately I haven’t, until now, been able to find any more details of activities in this direction. If any of my readers could direct me to any literature on the subject I would be very grateful.

Christian Severin known as Longomontanus

Turning to Italy we find the astronomers on the Collegio Romano under the watchful eye of Christoph Clavius making telescopic astronomical observations before Galileo published his Sidereus Nuncius in 1610, using a Dutch telescope sent to Odo van Maelcote by one of his earlier students Peter Scholier. Grégoire de Saint-Vincent would later claim that he and Odo van Maelcote were probably the very first astronomers to observe Saturn using a telescope. It was the astronomers of the Collegio Romano, most notably Giovanni Paolo Lembo and Christoph Grienberger, who would then go on to provide the very necessary independent confirmation of the discoveries that Galileo had published in the Sidereus Nuncius.

As can be seen Galileo was anything but the singlehanded pioneer of telescopic astronomy in those early months and years of the discipline. What is interesting is that those working within the discipline were not isolated lone warriors but a linked network, who exchanged letter and publications with each other.

Some of the connections that existed between the early telescopic astronomers are listed here: Harriot had corresponded extensively with Kepler and was very well informed about what Tycho and the other continental astronomers were up to. David Fabricius corresponded with Kepler and Tycho and even visited Tycho in Prague but unfortunately didn’t meet Kepler on his visit. Johannes would later take up correspondence with Kepler. Tycho corresponded with Magini in Bologna who passed on his news to both Galileo and Clavius. Clavius was also very well informed of all that was going on in European astronomy by the Jesuit network. Almost all of the Jesuit astronomers were students of his. Marius corresponded with Kepler, who published many of his astronomical discoveries before he did, and with David Fabricius, whom he had got to know when he visited Tycho in Prague to study astronomy. Longomontanus had earlier been Tycho’s chief assistant and corresponded with Kepler after he left Prague to return to Copenhagen. Interestingly another of Tycho’s assistants, Johannes Eriksen, visited both David Fabricius in Friesland and Thomas Harriot in London on the same journey.

What we have here is not Galileo Galilei as singlehanded pioneer of telescopic astronomy but a loosely knit European community of telescopic astronomers who all recognised and utilised the potential of this new instrument shortly after it appeared. They would soon be joined by others, in this case mostly motivated by Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius, a few of them even supplied with telescopes out of Galileo’s own workshop. However what is very important to note is that although Galileo was without doubt the best telescopic observer of that first generation and certainly won the publication race, all of the discoveries that he made were also made independently and contemporaneously by others, so nothing would have been lost if he had never taken an interest in the spyglass from Holland.






[1] Because I pointed out the errors contained in this claim in a comment, it has now been removed from the Facebook post!

[2] J. L. Heilbron, Galileo, OUP, 2010, p. 151


Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Optics, History of science, Uncategorized

A birthday amongst the stars

Readers will probably be aware that as well as writing this blog I also hold, on a more or less regular basis, semi-popular, public lectures on the history of science. These lectures are as diverse as this blog and have been held in a wide variety of places. However I have, over the years, held more lectures in the Nürnberg Planetarium than anywhere else and last Thursday I was once again under the dome, this time not to hold a lecture but to help celebrate the ninetieth birthday of this august institution.

Before the twentieth century the term planetarium was a synonym for orrery, a mechanical model, which demonstrates the movements of the planets in the solar system. The beginnings of the planetarium in the modern sense was as Walther Bauersfeld, an engineer of the German optics company Zeiss, produced the plans for the construction of a planetarium projector based on earlier concepts. In 1923 the world’s first planetarium projector, the Zeiss Mark I, was demonstrated in the Zeiss factory in Jena and two months later on 21 October in the Deutschen Museum in Munich. Following further developments the first planetarium was opened in the Deutschen Museum on 7 May 1925.

Zeiss Mark I Planetarium Projector

Various German town and cities followed suit and the city council of Nürnberg signed a contract with Zeiss for a planetarium projector on 12 February 1925. The contract called for the city council to pay Zeiss 150, 000 Reichsmark ( a small fortune) in three instalments and 10% of the takings from the public shows. In a building on Rathenauplatz designed by Otto Ernst Schweizer the Nürnberg planetarium opened ninety years ago on 10 April 1927.

Original Nürnberg Planetarium

Fitted out with a new Zeiss Mark II projector the first of the so-called dumbbell design projectors with a sphere at each end for the north and south hemispheres. It was the world’s ninth planetarium.

Zeiss Mark II Planetarium Projector

From the very beginning the planetarium was born under a bad sign as the NSDAP (Nazi) city councillor, Julius Streicher, (notorious as the editor of the anti-Semitic weekly newspaper Der Stürmer) vehemently opposed the plans of the SPD council to build the planetarium. On 30 January 1933 the NSDAP seized power in Germany and the days of the planetarium were numbered. In November the planetarium director was ‘persuaded’ to recommend closing the planetarium and at the beginning of December it was closed. There were discussions about using the building for another purpose but Streicher, now Gauleiter (district commissioner) of Franconia was out for revenge. In March 1934 the planetarium was demolished on Streicher’s orders, with the argument that it looked too much like a synagogue! However the projector, and all the technical equipment, was rescued and put into storage.

Historischer Kunstbunker Entrance: There are guided tours

During the Second World War the projector was stored together with the art treasures of the city in the Historischer Kunstbunker (historical art bunker), a tunnel under the Castle of Nürnberg.

Following the war, in the 1950s, as Nürnberg was being rebuilt the city council decided to rebuild the planetarium and on 11 December 1961 it was reopened on the new site on the Plärrer, with an updated Zeiss Mark III. During the celebrations for the five hundredth anniversary of the death of Nicolaus Copernicus in 1973, whose De revolutionibus was printed and published in Nürnberg, the planetarium became the Nicolaus-Copernicus-Planetarium. In 1977 the Mark III projector was replaced with a Mark V, which is still in service and in 2010 the planetarium entered the twenty-first century with a digital Full-Dome projector.

Nicolaus-Copernicus-Planetarium am Plärrer in Nürnberg (2013)

The Zeiss Mark V Planetarium Projector in Nürnberg

Since the 1990’s the planetarium has been part of the City of Nürnberg’s adult education complex and alongside the planetarium programme it is used extensively for STEM lectures. I shall be holding my next lecture there on 28 November this year about Vannevar Bush, Claude Shannon, Robert H Goddard and William Shockley- Four Americans Who Shaped the Future (in German!) and if you’re in the area you’re welcome to come and throw peanuts.





Filed under Autobiographical, History of Astronomy, History of Optics, History of science, Uncategorized