Nothing gets the attention of a stargazer like hearing the word "telescope" mentioned. This wonderful device makes it possible to journey through space and time without ever leaving home. And as several of the astronauts themselves have said, looking through one is the next best thing to actually being out there! But where did it come from?
In his famous poem The Star-Splitter, Robert Frost said that someone in every town owes it to the town to keep a telescope for people there to look through. I would expand upon this to say that someone in every home owes it to the home to keep one. It’s a "window on creation," a "time machine," and a "spaceship of the mind" all rolled into one! A telescope lets you view nature at its grandest—from the relatively nearby Moon and planets to remote galaxies at the very edge of creation. Looking through the eyepiece of one of these magic glasses is very much like peering through the "porthole" of a spaceship at the universe.
It’s a matter of opinion if the telescope was actually invented or discovered—already existing in universal consciousness just waiting for someone to find it. Most people credit Galileo for inventing it. But he didn’t! His claim to fame is that he was the first person to look at the Moon and planets and stars through such an instrument—and to publish what he saw. Then who actually did gift this to the world? (As an aside here, there are references in a number of ancient texts about people "looking at the stars through long tubes" and in one case of someone actually studying the stars through "the glass which was found"! Could these have been early versions of the telescope long before Galileo’s time?)
Science historians usually credit the invention/discovery of the telescope to a Dutch spectacle maker by the name of Hans Lippershey from Middleburg, Holland, in 1608. He supposedly held up two lenses of different curvature and aimed them at a weather vane on a distance church steeple, bringing it into much closer view. Other versions credit his two children with the discovery while playing with various lenses in their father’s shop. In either case, Lippershey mounted the two lenses in opposite ends of a tube and the telescope was born! He lost no time exploiting its financial possibilities, primarily for military rather than scientific purposes. Word of the telescope soon reached Galileo, who went about making several greatly-improved versions of his own.
If you don’t yet own one of these magic glasses, you owe it to yourself and to your family to get one and join in on the free skyshow unfolding nightly overhead. Perhaps the greatest value of a telescope is its most subtle—the cosmic perspective it gives you and others with whom you share the celestial wonders it reveals. And as the great Emerson well observed, "Of all tools, the observatory (telescope) is the most sublime."
— James Mullaney
Former assistant editor at Sky & Telescope magazine & author of nine books on
stargazing. His latest, Celebrating the Universe!, is available from HayHouse.com.