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A short history of telescopes

Last Updated: 22.02.20

A telescope is a sharp optical instrument used to bring distant objects into focus via a series of magnifying lenses. Telescopes have been part of our history books for over 400 years and have acted as tools for both professional and amateur astronomers, and have helped them see far beyond the biological limitations of the rudimentary human eye. The most powerful devices of today can detect distant objects billions of miles away from Planet Earth and its Moon, even if this wasn’t always the case.

But who did it first?

Most people, unless they are part of the scientific community, have the wrong impression that Galileo Galilei invented the telescope. He did not. But he was the first one to use a telescope to reach different spots of the night sky, and to reveal the secret the darkness of space hides, a thing for which we have to give him credit.

When people talk about the invention of the telescope, they bring up the invention of glass, without which lenses would not have been created. Glass has been discovered by the ancient Phoenicians, who have noticed that the sand where they cooked their food melted and turned transparent. This happened somewhere around 3500 BC, although some people have said that it happened in many places around the world throughout history.

Then, from glass, it took years for lenses to be designed and to be enhanced. In the beginning, they were used in spectacles and by doctors to treat conditions such as myopia. They kind of went under the radar for a long time, until someone had a spark of genius and has put together the first telescope, even if it took him two hundred years to come into the picture.


This person was Hans Lippershey

He was a spectacle man and something we would now call an optician. He lived in The Netherlands and he is often quoted as the inventor of the telescope. He put it together in 1608, with the help of his equally gifted father by stringing two lenses together in a rigid tube. The device brought far objects close to the eye of the one who looked through it.

It made quite an impression on the people of that time, as it was in all the papers. But no one thought of the possibilities that could be enabled by the device. It was Galileo who in 1609, really gave it a propose. He tamed the design and pointed it out to the limits of the solar system. He revealed the rich details of the Moon and its craters, the weird spots of the Sun and allowed us to peek at that the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter.

In 1611, Johannes Kepler redesigned the telescope yet again, by manufacturing it with convex lenses. And that is how the refracting telescope was created, which was the base for the creation of the first reflecting telescope that is still used today. The modern telescope uses concave mirrors, and it can magnify any portion of the sky by millions of times.

The future is here

Time passed, and as it did so, the telescope evolved too. In 1937 it took a new identity and it reached new heights of discovery. This was the year when the first radio telescope came into existence. It was constructed by a guy called Grote Reber, and it removed the black veil which covered the stars, the distant planets, and the supernovas.

Soon after the Second World War, radio-astronomy was born and it has led to what we know as the Space Race. Then the gamma-ray telescope was constructed in 1991, and quickly after that moment, a whole range of different telescopes like the X-ray and the ultraviolet telescopes were constructed as an answer for our thirst for knowledge.

And that wasn’t the end of the story, as this technology grew even bigger. And its biggest incarnation has to be the beloved Hubble Telescope, which has given us so many answers regarding our place in the universe. Then other orbiting telescopes came to the take the lead like Keppler, Herschel, and Spitzer and truly allowed us to dream about colonizing space. Now anyone can own a powerful telescope for sale if they want to stargaze from the comfort of their own homes.

The market is abundant with excellent portable telescopes and before you buy one make sure you read a guide to help you find the best model for you and your needs because the manufacturers nowadays offer so many diverse models.



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Ioana Moldovan

Ioana’s professional experience in the optics field has helped her understand the value of passing her knowledge forward. Her curious personality helps her gather useful information for her readers and her goal is to make technical information fun and accessible to everyone.

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