The question of who invented the telescope is one that historians, scholars, and scientists have continuously argued over for years; unfortunately, the answer to this question is still uncertain. This is due to the fact that the history of the telescope is one of evolution, chaos, and growth, meaning that many astronomers and scientists improved the telescope slowly over hundreds of years.
In the 1400s, eyeglasses and lenses for seeing existed and were widely used across Europe. However, these lenses were not powerful enough, polished enough, or clear enough to use for astronomical observations. Towards the end of the 1500s and the beginning of the 1600s, lens grinders and makers improved their abilities to create, cut, and polish glass lenses: it was during this time that Hans Lipperhey, a maker of spectacles in the Netherlands, experimented with lenses. Unlike others who were trying to build telescopes, Lipperhey put a mask on his telescope that only allowed a small amount of light to enter his telescope. By reducing the amount of light and focusing it, the images in his telescope became clear, but they also remained dim. This was the true beginning of the telescope.
Lipperhey took his telescope to Prince Maurice of Nassau in September of 1608, and about a week later, Lipperhey applied to patent his new device. Many other scientists and glass-makers came forward to claim that they had similar devices, which led to Lipperhey being denied his patent; however, scientists today primarily credit Lipperhey with the invention. The invention of the telescope spread across Europe after Lipperhey. By May of the following year, a telescope could be easily purchased in larger cities like Paris.
Galileo took up Lipperhey’s telescope and aimed to use and improve it. Galileo first discovered that the telescope was crucially important in astronomy, allowing him to look more closely at the heavens and how they moved. The telescope could magnify the heavens and allow him to see more stars than he could with the human eye. Lipperhey’s telescope was not powerful enough, so Galileo worked on improving the power of his own telescope. Other astronomers worked on improving the power of the telescope as well. For instance, Thomas Harriot, who lived in England, created a telescope that magnified objects by six times. Galileo then made a telescope that could magnify objects by eight times. He only improved the power of his own telescopes as the years passed, building one telescope that could magnify objects by twenty times.
Galileo’s telescope, as well as others built during the 1600s, had serious problems. These telescopes were exceptionally small in size and had a very limited viewing range. They did not have a fixed place for the eye, meaning that the image would move out of sight or focus. The small sizes led to chromatic aberrations, meaning the telescope could not bring the colors of the object into focus or alignment.
As mentioned, the history of the telescope is one of constant innovation, renovation, and evolution. In 1758, John Dollond created lenses that fixed the color problem that appeared in Galileo’s telescope. The telescope only became bigger, better, and clearer after Dollond.
The history of the telescope is a messy one, especially during the time Lepperhey introduced his telescope. Many Dutchmen came forward to claim that they invented the telescope or had a similar invention prior to Lepperhey. Historians have worked hard to uncover the truth as to who really build the first telescope, but the true inventor of the telescope is a mystery that is still argued even today.
For the sake of clarity, most astronomers and scientists credit Lepperhey with the invention of the telescope because his presentation to the Dutch prince and his application for a patent caused other glass engineers to stake their claim in the telescope’s invention. Without Lepperhey, other scientists and glass-makers would not have scrambled to claim themselves as the true inventor of the telescope.