When was the first Astronomical Telescope invented?

Over the course of history, many men have laid claim to the invention of Telescope. When you start digging, you will begin to uncover a very ancient (dating back to the 10th century), yet interesting history behind the invention. However, the question remains, when was the first Astronomical Telescope invented and who invented it?

Although the very first telescope was invented by Hans Lippershey, a Dutch spectacle maker, the first Telescope was pointed towards the sky by someone else. Galileo Galilei made his own telescope without even physically looking at the first telescope. His version had a better magnification power, thus helped observe the heavenly objects clearer. This telescope that Galileo worked on was the first Astronomical Telescope and was invented in 1609.

Although this invention was just the beginning of an era and the advancements post it was phenomenal, a very fascinating history lies behind it.

Invention of the very first Telescope

The very first telescope was invented in the Netherlands in October 1608 by Hans Lippershey. It had a convex lens (as the objective lens) and a concave lens (as the eyepiece). Both these lenses were placed on either ends of a tube, just like you would imagine a telescope, nothing fancy.

Early depiction of a ‘Dutch telescope’
Early depiction of a ‘Dutch telescope’ Source: https://webspace.science.uu.nl/~gent0113/telescope/telescopenl.htm

Lenses have been around since the time of the ancient Greek empire and in the 10th century, Alhazen, an Egyptian physicist contributed a lot in the study of optics. Although lenses were introduced to Europe in 13th century, the invention of telescope had to wait another 300-400 years.

Hans Lippershey’s telescope was capable of magnifying faraway objects by 3 to 4 times. When he applied for a patent, it was simply rejected as it was too simple to copy. Although he did not get a patent, he got an order to produce binocular version of the telescope.

Hans’ new invention soon spread like wild fire in Europe and could be easily acquired from spectacle-maker’s shop. The telescope design first reached France, then reached Italy, where it landed in the hands of Galileo Galilei.

Galileo’s contribution to Telescopes

The usage of early telescopes was bound to observing objects on land. They were majorly used in surveys and for military purposes.

Galileo did not intend to observe the heaven in the beginning, but worked on improving the design and the power of the primary telescope. After redesigning a 3x telescope, he designed a telescope that could magnify objects around 8-9 times. Eventually, Galileo would design a telescope that was capable of magnifying objects 30 times.

galileo offering his astronomical telescope to 3 women
[Galileo offering his astronomical telescope to three women (possibly Urania and attendants) seated on a throne; he is pointing toward the sky where some of his astronomical discoveries are depicted] – Source: https://www.loc.gov/resource/cph.3c10447/

As Galileo’s pointed his telescope towards the night sky, he started making plethora of discoveries about the cosmos. He was the first person to discover that the moon has mountains and craters, and that it is a giant piece of rock. He was the first one to observed the Milky Way, the Saturn and its rings, Jupiter and its 4 moons.

Just like Galileo, in the early 17th century, a bunch of other individuals picked up the telescope and pointed it towards the sky. However, Galileo was way quick than other observers to understand and publish his findings.

Galileo not just documented his findings, but also illustrated them with the help of sketches. Soon after the invention of the first astronomical telescope in 1609, Galileo published his findings in Starry Messenger (Sidereus Nuncius).

Galileo’s observation regarding the Sun

Each of the Galileo’s observations convinced him even more that the a planetary system revolves around the Sun in center. Galileo then wrote a book comparing the world systems proposed by Nicolaus Copernicus (Sun-centered) and Ptolemaic system (Earth-centered). This book was dedicated to Pope Urban VIII, but the ideas of a sun-centered system by Galileo was declared heresy. In 1663, Galileo was summoned in Rome, where he was sentenced to house-arrest. Galileo continued working and writing at his home until 1642 when he died.

Historical Advancements in Astronomical Telescope

After Galileo, a number of European scientists began working with the telescope and improving it. Johanes Kepler worked on a telescope with two convex lenses. Although the images appeared upside down, the magnification and clarity was much better. Based on Kepler’s findings, in 1668 Isaac Newton built a reflecting telescope using mirrors. This method dominates the Astronomical Telescope field till date.

In fact the James Webb telescope works with 21 mirrors, out of which 18 mirrors work together as one big reflective mirror.

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