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Home » Innovation » No, Galileo didn’t invent the telescope. Hans Lippershey swore that he did though

No, Galileo didn’t invent the telescope. Hans Lippershey swore that he did though

PortandTerminal.com, November 18, 2019

Who was the first person to create a telescope? It’s one of the most indispensable tools in maritime travel and astronomy, so it seems like the person who first came up with the idea would be well known. They’re not.

AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS – It is a common misconception that Galileo invented the telescope. He didn’t. Who actually did invent it remains uncertain. We do know who took the credit for its invention though.

While he didn’t invent it, Galileo’s telescope helped the astronomer to learn more about our solar system. This is a reconstruction of the telescope. Photograph: Jim Sugar/Corbis

The first person to apply for a patent for a telescope was a Dutch eyeglass maker named Hans Lippershey (or Lipperhey). In 1608, Lippershey laid claim to a device that could magnify objects three times and submitted a patent for it.

Was the patent for the telescope ever really his to try and claim though?

Hans Lippershey

Hans Lippershey (1570-1619)

Born in Wesel, West Germany in 1570, Lippershey moved to the prosperous city of Middleburg in the province of Zeeland in the Netherlands in 1594. In the sixteenth century trade was on the rise in Zeeland and Lippershey quickly married, set up shop and soon prospered.

The city of Middleburg in the 16th century was a prosperous, trading city in Zeeland, part of the Netherlands

Lippershey was a spectacle maker by profession and was made a citizen of Zeeland in 1602. He became a master at his art and was known to be an expert “lens grinder”.

Nuremberg style glasses from the period during which Lippershey would have been a spectacle maker

How the idea of the invention of the telescope came to Lippershey is not clearly known, or whether it was his idea at all.

One story goes that he got the idea for his design after observing two children in his shop holding up two lenses that made a distant weather vane appear close. Others charged at the time that he stole the design from another eyeglass maker, Zacharias Jansen.

Hans Lippershey’s “looker” could magnify distant objects 3 times.

The earliest record of the existence of the telescope is a letter of the government of Zeeland to its delegation to the States General of the Netherlands, dated 25 September 1608, which said that the bearer of the telescope “claims to have 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 which he claims to be a new invention.”

Just over a week later, Hans Lippershey applied for a 30 year patent to the States-General of the Netherlands on October 2, 1608. He described his instrument (which he titled “looker”) as useful for seeing far away objects as if they were close to us. 

Part of Lippershey’s unsuccessful patent application in 1608

Sadly, Lippershey did not receive his patent. The government denied his request because they thought that the “looker”, could not be kept a secret because it was such a simple idea. Lipperhey did, however, make several binocular telescopes for the States-General and was reportedly paid handsomely for his services.

Shortly Lippershey’s patent request, the States-General were also petitioned by Jacob Metius of Alkmaar, a city in the north of the Netherlands, who also claimed to be the inventor. The claim of yet a third person, Zacharias Janssen, also a spectacle-maker in Middelburg, emerged several decades later. The surviving records are not sufficient to decide who was the actual (or as it was put in the seventeenth century, the first) inventor of the telescope. All we can say is that Lipperhey’s patent application is the earliest record of an actual existing telescope.

Hans Lippershey died in Middleburg, Netherlands in 1619 at the age of 50. A lunar crater “Lippershey” and the minor planet “31338 Lipperhey” are named after him.

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