Focus-Science and Technology - - Q&A -

In 1992, a tele­scope built by the Bri­tish as­tronomer and his­to­rian Colin Ro­nan was shown on The Sky At Night. Tele­scopes have been vi­tal to sci­ence since Dutch spec­ta­cle maker Hans Lip­per­shey patented the now-fa­mil­iar ar­range­ment of lenses in 1608.

But what made Ro­nan’s tele­scope dif­fer­ent was that it was built to a de­sign pre-dat­ing Lip­per­shey’s by decades. Ro­nan claimed that an El­iz­a­bethan sur­veyor named Leonard Digges had found a com­bi­na­tion of a glass lens and curved mir­ror that also made dis­tant ob­jects ap­pear closer. De­scrip­tions of the de­vice be­gan to cir­cu­late around 1570, and its po­ten­tial mil­i­tary use prompted Lord Burgh­ley, chief ad­viser to El­iz­a­beth I, to com­mis­sion a re­port. After dis­cov­er­ing this man­u­script in the Bri­tish Li­brary, Ro­nan built the de­vice, and sug­gested that it had a claim to be­ing the first tele­scope. He also sug­gested Digges’s son, Thomas, had used it to ob­serve the sky years be­fore Galileo. Ro­nan’s claim has failed to con­vince his­to­ri­ans, how­ever. They ar­gue that El­iz­a­bethan tech­nol­ogy was not ca­pa­ble of mak­ing the op­ti­cal com­po­nents to the re­quired qual­ity, and that the tele­scope is too awk­ward to use in any case. So the con­sen­sus re­mains that Lip­per­shey is the orig­i­na­tor of the e first work­ing tele­scope.

*No im­ages of Leonard Digges are avail­able



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