Hans Lippershey: Telescope and Microscope Inventor

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 it seems like the person who first came up with the idea would be well known and written up in history. Unfortunately, no one is quite sure who was the first to design and build one, but the most likely suspect was a German optician named Hans Lippershey.  

Meet the Man Behind the Idea of the Telescope

Hans Lippershey was born in 1570 in Wesel, Germany, but little else is known about his early life. He moved to Middleburg (now a Dutch town) and married in 1594. He took up the trade of optician, eventually becoming a master lens grinder. By all accounts, he was a tinkerer who tried various methods of creating lenses for glasses and other uses. In the late 1500s, he began experimenting with lining up lenses to magnify the view of distant objects.

From the historical record, it appears that Lippershey was the first to use a pair of lenses in this way. However, he may not have been the first to actually experiment with combining lenses to create crude telescopes and binoculars. There is a tale that says some children were playing with flawed lenses from 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, such as Jacob Metius and Zacharias Janssen, later also claimed to invent the telescope, it was Lippershey who worked on perfecting the optical technique and application.

His earliest instrument 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?

Eventually, in 1608, Lippershey applied to the government of the Netherlands for a patent on his invention. Unfortunately, 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, Galileo 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 didn't stop his work with optics, and eventually he invented 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 Dutch opticians, Hans and Zacharias Janssen, who were making similar optical devices. However, records are very scanty, so it's 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, just a few years after Galileo's monumental observations using the telescope. A crater on the Moon is 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, an amazing variety of telescopes are 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. 

Fast Facts

  • Born: 1570, Wesel, Germany
  • Parents: No information available
  • Married: 1594, no information on spouse
  • Children: No information
  • Education: Trained as an optician in Middleburg, Zeeland (Netherlands)
  • Key accomplishments: Invented spyglasses, telescope, and microscope

Sources

 

Edited and updated by Carolyn Collins Petersen.