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History of the Telescope


Accounts of wonderful optical experiments by Roger Bacon (who died in 1292), and in the sixteenth century by Digges, Baptista Porta, and Antonio de Dominis, have led some to suppose that they invented the telescope. The writer considers that it is more likely that these notes refer to a kind of camera obscura, in which a lens throws an inverted image of a landscape on the wall.

The first telescopes were made in Holland, the originator being either Henry Lipperhey, Zacharias Jansen, or James Metius, and the date 1608 or earlier.

In 1609 Galileo, being in Venice, heard of the invention, went home and worked out the theory, and made a similar telescope. These telescopes were all made with a convex object-glass and a concave eye-lens, and this type is spoken of as the Galilean telescope. Its defects are that it has no real focus where cross-wires can be placed, and that the field of view is very small. Kepler suggested the convex eye-lens in 1611, and Scheiner claimed to have used one in 1617. But it was Huyghens who really introduced them. In the seventeenth century telescopes were made of great length, going up to 300 feet. Huyghens also invented the compound eye-piece that bears his name, made of two convex lenses to diminish spherical aberration.

But the defects of colour remained, although their cause was unknown until Newton carried out his experiments on dispersion and the solar spectrum. To overcome the spherical aberration James Gregory, of Aberdeen and Edinburgh, in 1663, in his Optica Promota, proposed a reflecting speculum of parabolic form. But it was Newton, about 1666, who first made a reflecting telescope; and he did it with the object of avoiding colour dispersion.

Some time elapsed before reflectors were much used. Pound and Bradley used one presented to the Royal Society by Hadley in 1723. Hawksbee, Bradley, and Molyneaux made some. But James Short, of Edinburgh, made many excellent Gregorian reflectors from 1732 till his death in 1768.

Newton’s trouble with refractors, chromatic aberration, remained insurmountable until John Dollond (born 1706, died 1761), after many experiments, found out how to make an achromatic lens out of two lenses—one of crown glass, the other of flint glass—to destroy the colour, in a way originally suggested by Euler. He soon acquired a great reputation for his telescopes of moderate size; but there was a difficulty in making flint-glass lenses of large size. The first actual inventor and constructor of an achromatic telescope was Chester Moor Hall, who was not in trade, and did not patent it. Towards the close of the eighteenth century a Swiss named Guinand at last succeeded in producing larger flint-glass discs free from striae. Frauenhofer, of Munich, took him up in 1805, and soon produced, among others, Struve’s Dorpat refractor of 9.9 inches diameter and 13.5 feet focal length, and another, of twelve inches diameter and 18 feet focal length, for Lamont, of Munich.

In the nineteenth century gigantic reflectors have been made. Lassel’s two-foot reflector, made by himself, did much good work, and discovered four new satellites. But Lord Rosse’s six-foot reflector, 54 feet focal length, constructed in 1845, is still the largest ever made. The imperfections of our atmosphere are against the use of such large apertures, unless it be on high mountains. During the last half century excellent specula have been made of silvered glass, and Dr. Common’s 5-foot speculum has done excellent work. Then there are the five-foot Yerkes reflector at Chicago, and the four-foot by Grubb at Melbourne.

Passing now from these large reflectors to refractors, further improvements have been made in the manufacture of glass by Chance, of Birmingham, Feil and Mantois, of Paris, and Schott, of Jena; while specialists in grinding lenses, like Alvan Clark, of the U.S.A., and others, have produced many large refractors.

Cooke, of York, made an object-glass, 25-inch diameter, for Newall, of Gateshead, which has done splendid work at Cambridge. We have the Washington 26-inch by Clark, the Vienna 27-inch by Grubb, the Nice 29.5-inch by Gautier, the Pulkowa 30-inch by Clark. Then there was the sensation of Clark’s 36-inch for the Lick Observatory in California, and finally his tour de force, the Yerkes 40-inch refractor, for Chicago.

At Greenwich there is the 28-inch photographic refractor, and the Thompson equatoreal by Grubb, carrying both the 26-inch photographic refractor and the 30-inch reflector. At the Cape of Good Hope we find Mr. Frank McClean’s 24-inch refractor, with an object-glass prism for spectroscopic work.

It would be out of place to describe here the practical adjuncts of a modern equatoreal—the adjustments for pointing it, the clock for driving it, the position-micrometer and various eye-pieces, the photographic and spectroscopic attachments, the revolving domes, observing seats, and rising floors and different forms of mounting, the siderostats and coelostats, and other convenient adjuncts, besides the registering chronograph and numerous facilities for aiding observation. On each of these a chapter might be written; but the most important part of the whole outfit is the man behind the telescope, and it is with him that a history is more especially concerned.