Sunday, 20 January 2008

The Digges telescope...

The story of how an Englishman apparently invented the telescope in the mid-sixteenth century is not as well-known as perhaps it ought to be. Its outline was first proposed in 1991 by Colin Ronan, the then president of the British Astronomical Association (and so a credible source): a very readable set of articles (though sadly without matching illustrations) is here, from which I quote below.

Essentially, it boils down to this: that an English Renaissance surveyor and author called Leonard Digges (ca. 1520 - ca. 1559) constructed what was called at the time "perspective glasses" (the term 'telescope' did not appear until the 17th century), quite probably for surveying purposes. However, it seems likely that his son Thomas Digges pointed them to the heavens, several decades prior to Galileo.

From a Voynichological perspective, one of the nice features of the story is that one of our old friends features centrally: when Leonard Digges died, his 13-year old son Thomas was placed under the guardianship of none other than John Dee. Dee, in his preface to Billingsley's 1570 translation of Euclid had this to say:

  • 'He may wonderfully helpe him selfe, by Perspective glasses. In which (I trust) our posterity will prove more skillfull and expert, and to greater purposes, than in these days, can (almost) be credited to be possible.'
This, when taken with Thomas Digges' own books and a 1583 report by William Bourne ("an expert in navigation and gunnery"), does all seem to comprise a 'smoking gun' proof that the two Digges in many significant ways predated Galileo by several decades. Which is not, of course, to diminish Galileo's historical importance per se: but rather, to show that the history of inventions is rarely as simple and linear as one might think.

One last thing: in the Netherlands patent uproar over the first 'official' telescopes, "the son of Sacharias Jansen [a better Wikipedia page is here], another of the claimants, later stated that his father [Hans Jannsen, the probable inventor of the microscope in 1590] already had a telescope of Italian manufacture, dated 1590". So the full story behind the invention of the telescope most likely remains obscure and tangled...

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