Who Invented the Telescope?

Hans Lippershey
Hans Lippershey (also known as Lipperhey), thought to be the inventor of the telescope. Public Domain.

Who was the first person to create a telescope? It's one of the most indispensable tools in astronomy, so you think we would know who came up with the idea first. Let's examine what we DO know of its origins. First, the telescope is a fairly recent invention in human history, only showing up on the scene around the year 1600. We know that Galileo Galilei used one to look at Jupiter and discover its moons in 1610.

Was he the person who invented? Probably  not. Yet, his use did popularize them for astronomy.

Meet the Person Behind the Telescope

A German optician named Hans Lippershey may be the inventor of this amazing tool. At the very least, he is credited with first using a pair of lenses to magnify the view of distant objects. However, he may not have been the first to actually experiment with combining lenses to create crude telescopes and binoculars. In fact, the credit may actually belong to his children!

There is a tale that says his children were playing with flawed lenses in his workshop to make distant objects look bigger. Their crude toy inspired him to do further experiments after he watched what they were doing. He built a housing to hold the lenses and experimented with their placement inside. While others later also claimed to invented the telescope, such as Jacob Metius and Zacharias Janssen, it was Lippershey who worked on perfecting the optical technique and application that led to the telescope.

He applied to the government of the Netherlands for a patent on his invention in 1608.

His earliest telescope was simply two lenses held in place so that an observer could look through them to distant objects. He called it a "looker" (in Dutch, that would be "kijker"). Its invention immediately led to the development of spyglasses and other magnifying devices.

It was the first known version of what we know today as a "refracting" telescope. Such a lens arrangement is now common in camera lenses.

Too Far Ahead of His Time?

Unfortunately for Lippershey, his patent request was denied. The government thought that the "looker" could not be kept a secret because it was such a simple idea. However, he was asked to create several binocular telescopes for the Netherlands government and was well compensated for his work. His invention was not called "telescope" at first; instead, people referred to it as the "Dutch reflecting glass".  The theologian Giovanni Demisiani actually came up with the word "telescope" first, from the Greek words for "far" (telos) and "skopein", meaning "to see, to look". 

The Idea Spreads

After Lippershey's application for the patent was publicized, people across Europe took notice of his work and began fiddling with their own versions of the instrument. The most famous of these was Italian scientist Galileo Galilei. Once he learned of the device, he began constructing his own, eventually increasing the magnification to a factor of 20. Using that improved version of the telescope, Galileo was able to spot mountains and craters on the Moon, see that the Milky Way was composed of stars, and discover the four largest moons of Jupiter (which are now called the "Galileans").

Lippershey has also been credited with the invention of the compound microscope, which uses lenses to make very small things look large. However, there's some argument that the microscope may have been invented by two other two other Dutch opticians, Hans and Zacharias Janssen. They were making similar optical devices, but it's very hard to know who actually came up with the idea first. Nonetheless, once the idea was "out of the bag" scientists began finding many uses for this way of magnifying the very small and the very distant.

Lippershey's Legacy

Hans Lippershey (whose name is also sometimes spelled "Lipperhey") died in the Netherlands in 1619. There is a crater on the Moon named in his honor, as well as asteroid 31338 Lipperhey. In addition, a recently discovered exoplanet bears his name.

Today, thanks to his original work, there is an amazing variety of telescopes in use around the world and in orbit. They function using the same principle he first noticed — using optics to make distant objects look larger and give astronomers more detailed looks at celestial objects. Most telescopes today are reflectors, which use mirrors to reflect the light from an object. The use of optics in their eyepieces and onboard instruments (installed on such orbital observatories as the Hubble Space Telescope) continues to help observers — particularly using backyard-type telescopes — to refine the view even more. 

Edited and updated by Carolyn Collins Petersen.