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Historian Questions Origin Of The Telescope

September 22, 2008

New historical evidence suggests the telescope may have been invented in Spain, not the Netherlands or Italy as scientists once thought.

The findings suggest the telescope’s creator could have been a spectacle-maker based in Gerona, Spain.

The first refracting telescopes were thought to have appeared in the Netherlands in 1608 and may actually have been made for Spanish merchants.

According to historian Nick Pelling, the inventor could have been a man called Juan Roget, who died between 1617 and 1624.

He says the idea then traveled north to the Netherlands, where, in 1608, three separate individuals claimed the invention as their own.

Hans Lipperhey, a Dutch spectacle-maker, submitted his application for a patent on October 2, 1608.

Reports of another man demonstrating a telescope surfaced in the Netherlands on October 14, 1608.

Jacob Metius of Alkmaar, another spectacle-maker, put in an independent patent for a telescope on October 17, 1608.

However, Pelling finds the traditional account lacking: “Throughout history, there have been cases of people inventing things all at the same time. But generally, there’s a good reason for that. It’s because someone had put down a challenge.

In 1608, no one had presented a challenge – there’s no perception of a challenge. It doesn’t make any sense. Three people did not invent the telescope in the space of two weeks,” he said.

Many historians have suggested the telescope was first invented in Italy.

Pelling became interested in the subject when he came across a reference on the Internet to a research paper published in 1959 by a Spanish optometrist and amateur historian by the name of Simon de Guilleuma.

De Guilleuma investigated a reference in a book published in 1609 by the Italian Girolamo Sirtori.

The book details a meeting with an aged spectacle maker called Juan Roget in Gerona who he described as the real inventor of the telescope.

Roget, who hailed from Burgundy in France, was often considered too marginal to pursue by most telescope historians. But de Guilleuma discovered a reference to the death of his wife in an official register.

Official listings for many of Roget’s relatives in Barcelona, many of whom were also spectacle-makers, were also found. They matched the descriptions detailed by Sirtori, and existed in exactly the places and dates he described.

De Guilleuma continued his search; he looked for “ulleras” – a Catalan word originally meaning eyeglass, but later used for telescope – in inventories of goods from contemporary deaths in Barcelona.

The earliest was from April 10, 1593 when a Don Pedro de Carolona passed down “a long eyeglass decorated with brass” to his wife.

But Pelling accepts in his article that this item could have referred to a magnifying lens with a long handle.

But he still maintains that a subsequent reference to an “eyeglass/telescope for long sight” from 1608 sounds like a Roget telescope.

Roget and his customers may simply have failed to see the potential for the invention, according to Pelling.

“It’s a bit like golf courses. The people who make golf courses often go bust. It’s the person who buys the course who makes money,” said Pelling.

“Even at the time, I think it was clear that all the Dutch claimants were lying, misleading, misremembering and concealing to various degrees,” he said, in his article in History Today.

Pelling noted that he had been in contact with de Guilleuma’s family and now hoped to be able to view other, unpublished research left by the historian after he died.

The Tuscan astronomer Galileo Galilei would greatly improve on the Dutch designs. Such refracting telescopes used lenses to form an image.

Galileo’s compatriot Nicolo Zucchi developed the first reflecting telescope in 1616 – which used an arrangement of mirrors to create an image.

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