Curious Questions: How did Galileo take the credit for inventing the telescope despite being beaten to it by two Dutchmen and an Englisman?

Every schoolboy knows that Galileo Galilei invented the telescope. There's only one issue with that: he didn't. Yet what what he did do is arguably even more extraordinary. Martin Fone, author of 'Fifty Curious Questions', investigates.

Twinkle, twinkle, little star/ How I wonder what you are’ goes the nursery rhyme. There is something mystifying and deeply captivating about the celestial bodies that sparkle and shine above our heads at night-time and from time immemorial Homo sapiens has wanted to get to know them better. Today, of course, we can get a better view of them from terra firma by using a telescope. But who invented this very useful scientific instrument?

Popular theory gives the credit to Galileo Galilei but, inevitably, it is a lot more complicated than that. This is where Hans, or Johann, Lippershey, a German-Dutch spectacle maker comes in.

The techniques for making glass and grinding lenses came on leaps and bounds in the 16th century, making it easier to develop smaller and more powerful lenses. Inevitably, someone would have the bright idea of seeing what would happen if they held up two lenses. Indeed, the apocryphal story goes that Lippershey conceived his idea of a telescope when two children held up a couple of lenses and made the weather vane of the local church appear closer.  

A contemporary woodcut showing Hans Lippershey, the German-Dutch telescope pioneer, being inspired by two children (Picture: Alamy)

A contemporary woodcut showing Hans Lippershey, the German-Dutch telescope pioneer, being inspired by two children (Picture: Alamy)

Less charitable souls claim that he stole the idea from a neighbour, fellow eyeglass maker Zacharias Jansen. The truth is buried in the mists of time but what is certain is that Lippershey developed a rudimentary telescope consisting of a concave eyepiece which was aligned to an objective lens, concave, of course. It boasted a magnification power of three, pretty feeble by modern standards but at least it was a start.

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Emboldened by his success, on October 2nd 1608 Lippershey applied to the States General of the Netherlands for a patent for what he called an instrument ‘for seeing things far away as if they were nearby’. It’s a rather clumsy description; the word telescope would not be coined for another three years, when Giovanni Demisiani came up with it.

Lippershey was not granted a patent. Perhaps the waters had been muddied by the controversy as to how he got the idea, while another complication arose a few weeks later when Dutch authorities received a different patent application for a patent for a similar instrument, this time from Jacob Metius, another Dutch instrument-maker.

The emergence of a rival instrument led the authorities to draw the inevitable conclusion that the device was easy to make and, therefore, difficult to patent. Lippershey didn’t lose out entirely: he received a large fee from the Dutch government in return for the use of his design. Poor Mettius had to make do with a small reward.

‘Within days – and without ever having seen the Dutch inventions – he had created his own telescope’

The device created a bit of a stir and news spread across Europe when it was mentioned in a widely-distributed report about the visit of the King of Siam’s embassy to the court of the Dutch crown prince, Maurice, in The Hague. The genie was out of the bottle and a number of eminent scientists began experimenting with the concept of using a pair of lenses to bring the image of something nearer to the viewer.      

By the summer of 1609, the English scientist Thomas Harriott had produced a telescope with a magnification factor of six. He pointed his telescope at the moon and, in August 1609, drew what he saw.

He never published the results, however, leaving the way clear for Galileo to get in on the act. His boundless intellectual curiosity was piqued by reports of the Dutch perspective glasses which reached him in 1609. Within days – and without ever having seen the Dutch inventions – he had created his own telescope, which boasted a magnification power of twenty. With this he observed the moon, discovered the rings of Saturn and four of Jupiter’s moons. Galileo reproduced what he saw in astonishing ink drawings which he published (to a mixture of acclaim and shock) in Siderus nuncius

So while Lippershey can claim to have been the first to develop a telescope and Harriott was the man to first drew the moon, it was Galileo who scooped the glory. Such is the fickle finger of fate.

Martin Fone is author of ‘Fifty Curious Questions’ – find out more about his book or you can order a copy via Amazon.

The title page of Galileo’s then-sensational Sidereus nuncius, which contained his drawings of the moon as well as his observations about several other celestial bodies. (Picture: *IC6.G1333.610s, Houghton Library, Harvard University)