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400-Year-Old Telescopes Appear in the Strangest of Places

January 5, 2007

CHICAGO – Like cell phones or the Internet in recent history, the telescope’s introduction in the early 17th Century had a swift and lasting impact on the world. Telescopes revolutionized military strategy and within months showed the father of astronomy, Galileo Galilei, that Earth is not the center of the universe.

Until recently, scholars thought only 8 or 10 of these important early telescopes _ made between 1608 and 1650 of tightly rolled paper and crudely ground lenses _ had survived to the present day.

Then two historians on a visit to a museum in Berlin last fall had an “aha!” moment. One of the oldest known surviving telescopes at the German museum gave them an idea of places to look for other, as yet undiscovered examples.

Their insight apparently was correct. According to Marvin Bolt of Chicago’s Adler Planetarium, he and his colleague found a previously unreported 1627 telescope in a Dresden museum storage room within 24 hours of their brainstorm. Less than a day later, they found a second, slightly earlier telescope that had lain unnoticed in the storage room of a museum in Kassel.

“This discovery is exciting, because it suggests further places to look for more old telescopes,” said Bolt, who made the discovery with Michael Korey, a museum conservator in Germany.

Finding more early telescopes will help scientists and historians better understand who made them and how they evolved and improved over time, said Eugene Rudd, an emeritus University of Nebraska professor of physics who is a world authority on old telescopes.

“I’ve seen the photographs of the two Marvin has located in Germany, and they certainly have the characteristics of the very early ones,” said Rudd. “I know of only eight telescopes that date before 1650 that still survive, so to find two more is extraordinary, a remarkable find.”

Bolt is a technology historian at the Adler, which boasts the largest and finest collection of old scientific instruments in the Western Hemisphere, including an exquisite, leather-covered, trumpet-shaped device made in Italy around 1630.

Korey is a conservator at the Mathematisch-Physikalischer Salon in Dresden. The museum has one of the world’s oldest and most renowned collections of historic scientific instruments.

Through an American Association of Museums program sponsored by the U.S. State Department, Korey visited the Adler collection last summer, working in areas in which Bolt lacks expertise. Then, late in September, Bolt flew to Dresden to help Korey with his museum’s collection of 18th Century and late-17th Century telescopes.

“I also wanted to visit some other museums that have the really old telescopes,” Bolt said, “hoping I might learn some things that might tell me more about our old telescope. We know very little about it.”

On Oct. 2, he and Korey visited Berlin’s Decorative Arts Museum to see a well-known telescope dating to 1617. It had been part of a collection of 17th Century scientific instruments found in a finely crafted cabinet built for a royal family to display scientific instruments _ a kunstschrank.

Such cabinets were important status symbols in wealthy 17th Century households. The idea was that, by owning a kunstschrank and its contents, the owners showed they were learned and knowledgeable as well as generous sponsors of scientists and their work.

Seeing the 1617 telescope and the elaborate cabinet it came from, Bolt said a bell went off in his head. Probably there were other old cabinets scattered around Europe that nobody had ever looked into for old telescopes.

“In a decorative arts museum,” he said, “curators aren’t aware of the history of telescopes, and if they have one belonging to one of these cabinets, they regard it more as a beautiful object rather than an example of early technology.

“On the other hand, I don’t think any technology historians had ever thought of a decorative arts museum as a place to hunt for early telescopes.”

He and Korey excitedly began thinking about canvassing museums that might own the cabinets. That night, while attending the opera back in Dresden, Korey noticed a poster advertising the loan of a 17th Century kunstschrank from Dresden’s own decorative arts museum to a Budapest museum.

The following morning Korey and Bolt visited the Dresden museum director who had loaned out the cabinet. Why yes, the director said, there was an artifact belonging to the cabinet that might have been some sort of looking device, but it was in such poor shape that it was not being displayed.

“In an early inventory of the cabinet’s contents, it simply listed a `perspective glass,’” not a telescope, Korey said.

Under Bolt’s guidance, a technician at Korey’s museum took the paper-tube telescope apart and found the lenses wadded up in balls of paper inside. Bolt spent until 1:30 the next morning examining the glass and the grinding techniques to estimate their age.

“Michael knew the year of construction of the cabinet the telescope came out of, but he wouldn’t tell me, as a sort of double-blind test of how accurate my age estimate might be,” Bolt said. “I finally guessed the lenses dated to the 1620s or the 1630s.”

The cabinet is positively dated to 1627.

At 5 a.m. that same morning, he and Korey boarded a train for a museum in Kassel devoted to scientific instruments, including many old telescopes, though none that were thought to date to pre-1650. It was Bolt’s last full working day in Germany before returning home, and he wanted to study several unique telescopes there.

“About mid-afternoon, I mentioned what I had seen the night before and characteristics of really early ones,” Bolt said. “One of the curators said he thought they had something like that in storage, and they took me there to show it to me.

“There it was on the shelf _ a beautiful early one, dating around the 1630s, in much better shape than the one in Dresden. It had decorative gold fleur de lis tooling on the leather covering of the barrel, suggesting it was Italian or French-made.”

Bolt will return to Germany in 2007 to do more research on the old Kassel telescope, evaluating its lenses and investigating if it, too, originally was made to equip a kunstschrank.

Eager to see how technology evolved, science historians have missed important information by ignoring what roles the early telescopes played in society at the time they were built, especially as status symbols for the rich, Bolt said.

“Nobody has looked at them as cultural objects,” he said. “We’re going to continue to explore this genre, because it has the potential to offer so much information. If we find one associated with a well-known piece of furniture, it gives us a specific date for when it was made and possibly accurate information on who made it, where it was made and who owned it.”

Such information on the known early telescopes is hard to come by, he said. Historians even disagree about how many are known to have survived. Some say there are 10, counting two telescopes in Florence thought to have been used by Galileo. Others don’t count those two, believing they were made after more sophisticated lenses were developed in 1650.

“If you only have 8 or 10 examples of them,” Bolt said, “it’s not a large enough sample size to know all the characteristics of the early ones.”

Nobody knows for certain who invented the telescope, but an obscure Dutch spectacle maker, Hans Lipperhey, is generally credited with demonstrating the first working model, at the court of Prince Maurice in the Netherlands in September 1608.

It was the middle of the savage Eighty Years’ War. Maurice and his realm were in the Protestant camp that fought throughout Europe against Roman Catholic partisans led by Spain. Lipperhey’s telescope caused a sensation, as Maurice and his courtiers saw it as a miraculous military tool to spy on enemy troops from long distances.

Unfortunately, Maurice talked so freely about the astounding new technology that the Spanish found somebody to build working telescopes almost immediately. Lipperhey never got the royal patent he had been seeking.

“The telescope is one of those revolutionary ideas that spread like wildfire,” said Bolt. “Just months after Lipperhey showed off his device, you could buy telescopes in Paris.”

Early that same year, Galileo began building his own telescopes after having read descriptions. By the end of 1609, he had pointed them into the night skies and discovered that other planets had orbiting moons. That profoundly shattering news would eventually tear apart scientific and theological dogma holding that the rest of the universe rotated around Earth. Humans began to see they live in a tiny corner of a vast cosmos rather than at the center of things.

Bolt and Korey are preparing a paper for academic publication on their discovery. During his 2007 visit to Germany, Bolt said, he and Korey will search out more kunstschrank cabinets in hopes of finding telescopes.

“We feel there is a good chance we may find some more in the next couple of years,” said Bolt.




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