To mark the four hundredth anniversary next year of Galileo’s first astronomical use of the telescope in 1609, the IAU has designated 2009 “The International Year of Astronomy” (IYA2009): which is likely to be the trigger for a glut of telescope history-themed books (probably no bad thing, in my opinion). But what happened before 1609?

I recently mentioned here “the lost 150 years”, that awkward pause between the widespread availability of both convex and concave lenses (circa 1450) and the appearance of microscopes (circa 1590) and telescopes (circa 1600). Such compound optical devices could have been invented by anyone during that period, and the best-documented pre-1600 telescopic claim so far seems to be from Thomas Digges (John Gribbin discusses this in one of his books). But could yet other inventors (such as possibly the author of the Voynich Manuscript) have pre-dated Digges, Janssen and co?

There were plenty of alchemical-style claims to that effect, most notably from H. C. Agrippa, who wrote in his “Occult Philosophy” that “And I knew how to make by them wonderful things, in which any one might see whatsoever he pleased at a long distance” (Book II, Chapter 23) . However, there was (in this case) apparently nothing of real substance behind his bluster.

All the same, I asked on the HASTRO-L mailing list if there were any up-to-the-minute books on this far-too-quiet period, and was delighted to learn (via Peter Abrahams) of a book that is just coming out from Harvard University Press: “Galileo’s Glassworks, The Telescope and the Mirror” (2008), by Eileen Reeves, Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton, who specialises in the study of early modern scientific literature. Though the publisher’s blurb seems to make her book sound over-focused on the minutiae of Galileo’s rhetoric, I’m assured that its first half does actually take in the wider pre-1609 field of view (which is precisely what I was most interested in).

The release date for Glassworks is either January 2008 or 28th February 2008 (depending on who you ask): there are already some copies for sale in the US, but it’s only pre-ordering in the UK at the moment. I’ll review it here when my copy arrives (counting the days)…

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