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Hans Lippershey* (1570-1619) was a Dutch lensmaker who is historically credited with creating the first telescope in September of 1608. Less than a year later, a telescope was in the hands of Galileo Galilei, whose "heresies" helped turn our understanding of the cosmos upside-down.


Lippershey was born in Wesel, Germany, just a dozen or so miles from the border with the Netherlands. His family moved to Middelburg, Zeeland sometime during his youth. The Netherlands were known as a center for lenscrafting in Europe (second only to Italy, where the craft had been pioneered in the 1300s), though it isn't clear whether Lippershey was trained as as a lenscrafter before or after the family's move. He was married in Middelburg in 1594, and became a Dutch citizen in 1602.

Prior to Lippershey's (likely fortuitous) construction of the telescope, the idea of combining lenses to enable the magnification of distant objects probably occurred to several people, dating back to at least the late 13th century. The first man to ever combine two lenses may well have been Roger Bacon, the English Franciscan monk, who studied the optical properties of lenses and mirrors (a study which contributed to charges of "witchcraft" against him). The Italian physician and astronomer Girolamo Fracastoro wrote about experiments using two lenses as a magnifier in Homocentricorum seu de Stellis Liber Unus some time in the early 1500s (I can't find the publication date). Englishman Leonard Digges may have come up with the idea prior to 1558, and the Italian Giambattista della Porta claimed to have come up with the idea too. However, given that no astronomical telescopic observations were published until 1609, it is certain that their ideas were not widely discussed or disseminated. Pointing a telescope at the sky is such an obvious idea and would have produced such shocking results that the lack of any historical observations suggests that no working telescopes were created prior to 1608.

The circumstances surrounding Lippershey's discovery and construction of the telescope are also uncertain. There is a story (perhaps apocryphal, perhaps not) that Lippershey's children were playing with flawed lenses in his shop one day, and they came to their father with their discovery: putting one lens in front of another makes distant things appear larger. Lippershey took the lenses and trained them on a distant church steeple, which suddenly loomed large in front of his eyes. Regardless of how he came up with the idea, what set Lippershey apart from his predecessors was practicality. Rather than simply writing about it, Lippershey offered his design for a kijker ("looker") to the Dutch military, and set about trying to obtain a patent for his design. He built at least three working versions of the refracting telescope for the government as part of the patent application process, but was ultimately denied a patent because although no one had published a working design, several people claimed to have come up with the idea independently. Furthermore, although Lippershey was required to keep his invention secret, news about his telescope apparently spread quickly throughout Europe, and they were given as gifts to several dignitaries. By June of 1609, news of Lippershey's invention reached Galileo, who wrote the following to his brother-in-law on August 29:

You should know that about two months ago the news was spread around here that a telescope had been presented to Count Maurice in Flanders. This telescope was built in such a way that it made objects far away appear very close, so that a man at a distance of two miles could be seen distinctly. This seemed to me such a marvelous effect that I started to think about it.... (Abetti)

Clearly, Lippershey's invention set Galileo's mind in motion, and the latter engineered his own superior telescope design soon afterward. Galileo's Sidereus Nuncius followed in short order, describing the mountains of the moon, the fine details of nebulae, and announcing the discovery of four moons orbiting Jupiter. Though Galileo was first to publish his observations, the English mathematician Thomas Harriot and the German Simon Marius probably made observations with their own copies of De Hollandse kijker a little earlier.

Although Lippershey didn't receive a patent, he was paid 900 florins by the Dutch government for several working instruments, a nice windfall for the Dutch spectacles-maker. Apparently the Dutch government asked him to construct binoculars as well. Lippershey also designed his own microscope, though that instrument was first described by Zacharius Jensen around 1590. Not coincidentally, Lippershey was denied a patent for the telescope in part because Jensen claimed he himself had designed (but did not publish) a similar instrument about the same time as Lippershey. Jensen was also a Dutchman, and apparently the two men knew each other, though it is unknown whether their relationship was competitive or not.

Lippershey continued to work as a lensmaker and experimenter after the excitement surrounding his invention calmed down. He died in Middelburg in 1619.


* Lippershey's name is given in various sources as Hans Lippersheim, Jan Lippersheim, and Hans Lipperhey. They are all the same person.

Sources:
http://es.rice.edu/ES/humsoc/Galileo/People/lipperhey.html
Abetti, G., The History of Astronomy, Henry Schuman (New York, 1952)
Berry, A., A Short History of Astronomy: From Earliest Times Through The Nineteenth Century, Dover Books, 1961 (reprint of 1898 edition).

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