Hans Lippershey

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400 years ago today, Galileo unveiled his telescope. This is a red-letter day for science, so much so that it is the International Year of Astronomy, as sponsored by UNESCO and the IAU, as well as the International Year of Science. Even Google is in on it, making its Google Doodle into an ornate homage to Galileo’s telescope.

Galileo did not invent the telescope. That honor goes to the Dutch and Hans Lippershey in 1608. And the landmark discoveries Galileo made with his telescope, such as observing sunspots, the phases of Venus, the surface of the Moon, and the moons of Jupiter, would not be published for another year or so. If anything, the substantial contribution to knowledge is the 1610 publication of Sidereus Nuncius (The Starry Messenger), containing many of the aforementioned celestial observations.

Galileo gets the praise because of his simultaneous application of a new device and the marketing of it for sale (becoming a lucrative business for his personal wealth). He deserves credit, and we all owe him thanks for his contributions to science. But when considering the power of a device that could not only magnify images far away but also make the very small more visible (telescopes would lead to microscopes), Lippershey gets short shrift. Records show Lippershey applied for a patent, but did not try to keep the material secret after the Dutch government denied his application on the grounds that the technology could not be kept secret. He was rewarded for producing “Dutch Perspective Glasses”, as they were known, for the government. Word gets out, leading to experiments by others, including Thomas Harriot in England and Galileo.

So why the anniversary today when this was clearly a multi-stage rollout, with long reaching consequences beyond the mere announcement of a device? I don’t know about that, but what I do hope others appreciate is the leap that occurred in 1608.

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Galileo's description of his telescope's optical properties, from Sidereus Nuncius (The Starry Messenger), 1610

Projection is, in all of its applications and variants, a virtual reality. It graphically simulates complex forms and spaces, it accurately describes 3D phenomena through 2D methods, and it can enhance existing vision. The telescope, and the manipulation of light rays to create new visual paradigms (far is now near, small is now big), is a perfect example of the power of projection systems. It is empirical (no calculation required), and it is automated (the lenses do all the work), making it not just a machine, but one that was easily used by a larger audience. It did not require special knowledge to look through a spyglass.

In months to come, I will write about other such breakthroughs and, more importantly, the adoption of those breakthroughs, especially around the time of the telescope. The dozen or so years around 1600 saw an incredible explosion of projective technology established and disseminated to the world via mechanisms and treatises. It also kicked into gear what we now refer to as the scientific revolution.

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