Where do you think we’d be if the telescope hadn’t been invented? That’s a tough question to answer, and really, it doesn’t have just a single answer. There are many things that we enjoy in our daily lives that owe their existence to the telescope, and some may not be terribly obvious.
Of course, we wouldn’t know nearly as much as we do about our solar system, our galaxy, and well, the universe. By association though, we also wouldn’t have calendars, or Christmas, or TV and the internet. Let me explain…
The history of the telescope most typically stretches back to one Galileo Galilei, though, while obviously a critical player in this tale, Galileo did not invent the telescope. He merely adapted earlier designs and then used them to shatter the common beliefs of everyone on the planet. No, officially, credit for the invention of the telescope goes to Hans Lippershey in 1608.
What’s that? You’ve never hear of Hans Lippershey? Yeah, that’s not uncommon, and there’s a reason for that. The only reason Lippershey – who was a German spectacle maker (eye glasses) – gets that credit is because his design is the first for which we have a record of patent. There are many others though, who could have beaten him to the punch, we just have no way of verifying the timeline.
What is known, is that thanks to Lippershey and those early pioneers of technology, men like Keppler, Huygens, and Hubble were able to provide both the tools and the knowledge we needed to drastically advance our understanding of the universe.
OK so, remember above, when I said that we might not have developed TV and the Internet without the telescope? Here’s why: one of our favourite characters from the history of science, Sir Isaac Newton, is credited with, among many other things, discovering the spectrum of light. That is, he discovered that colour is an intrinsic property of light and then he proved it. In turn, through his long a study of optics, he invented the very first reflecting telescope – today called a Newtonian Telescope. But again, he did not invent the telescope, he simply adapted earlier designs.
You’re probably still wondering what that has to do with TV, and I’ll tell you. From Newton’s theory of chromatic aberration, which became his Theory of Light, many other things were eventually developed, such as glass electrostatic generators and tunable lasers. This also included the much later invention in which the projection of light inside a tube, coupled with the manipulation of electrical signals could create a moving picture, also called a television image.
OK, that might be a stretch, but here’s what isn’t.
If the telescope was truly a parent technology to much of the technology of convenience and entertainment we have today, there’s one other thing that deserves to be mentioned. None of this would be possible without the discovery and manufacture of lenses.
A lens is, simply, a piece of transparent material, often glass, which is used to focus light passing through from one side to the other. It’s no more complicated than that, but it can be made so, i.e. bifocal eye glasses.
And the history of lenses is equally fascinating, and perhaps even more important than you realise.
The archaeological record holds many examples of crude lenses (and even convex mirrors) dating back to a pre-historic era, often made of crystal, obsidian, glass, and sometimes even gemstones. The oldest known lens is the Nimrud Lens from ancient Assyria, approximately 2,700 years ago. It’s difficult to declare such an object a lens though, since it could very well have been used for several different tasks. Though scholars have suggested that it may have been used either as a magnifying glass or burning glass. This makes it seem possible, even, that the use of lenses could have contributed to the proliferation of fire as a tool.
By the height of the medieval period, lenses were beginning to find use in scientific pursuits, and their manufacture became far more refined, however there is evidence that such sophisticated use was quite a bit older.
The use of burning lenses is mentioned in several ancient Greek texts. The likes of Aristotle, Plutarch, Hippolytus, and the playwright Aristophanes would ponder the nature of light and colour and marvel at its manipulation through glass and stone.
"STREPSIADES: Have you ever seen a beautiful, transparent stone at the druggists', with which you may kindle fire?
SOCRATES: You mean a crystal lens.
STREPSIADES: That's right. Well, now if I placed myself with this stone in the sun and a long way off from the clerk, while he was writing out the conviction, I could make all the wax, upon which the words were written, melt." — Aristophanes, The Clouds, 419 B.C.
But the fact that crude lenses, and later, an evolving refinement of lenses, are found throughout the archaeological record in nearly every part of the world, suggests that the Greek scholars may have been a little late to the game.
It’s often said that we are children of light, and depending who says it, they may not know how right they are. We owe our entire existence to light, or more accurately, the electromagnetic spectrum. It nourishes us, it warms us, it powers us, and it offers a means to measure, and count, and observe our world. Without it we would perish, or better yet we wouldn’t exist in the first place. But it should also be said that we owe almost as much to those brilliant minds who, in a time of blind ignorance, were able to recognise the importance of lenses, and prisms, and mirrors, and eventually gave us the world we have today.