At the beginning of this year, I became interested in the mystery surrounding the invention of the telescope, spurred by Richard SantaColoma’s outrageous claims that the enciphered Voynich Manuscript contained images of telescopes disguised as strange tiered albarelli. But really, who did invent the telescope? Where did it come from?
At first, I thought the answer ought to be straightforward to find out, particularly as this year (in fact this month, September 2008) marks the 400th anniversary of the supposed invention. But the more accounts I read, the less I believed.
You see, for four centuries, people have asserted that three Dutchmen suddenly invented the telescope all at the same time: but my opinion is that this is a placeholder for an explanation rather than a proper explanation – bluntly, whatever actually happened back then, you can be fairly sure that that wasn’t it.
When you strip it all down, there are basically two rival accounts to choose from: the mainstream story (“three Dutchmen invented it, take your pick whichever you prefer“) and the one offered by the Milanese rich kid courtier Girolamo Sirtori in his 1618 book “Telescopium, siue Ars perficiendi nouum illud Galilaei visorium instrumentum ad sydera”. Essentially, Sirtori said that he had gone to Gerona and met the real ‘first inventor’ of the telescope, a man called Roget of Burgundy: however, given all the uncontestable documentation in Dutch archives, historians had long thought this too marginal a research lead to pursue. And anyway, Sirtori offered no means by which Spain and Holland were connected.
However, I managed (thanks to Google and the helpful staff of the Municipal Archive in Barcelona) to dig up a transcript of an obscure 1959 radio broadcast written by a particularly dogged investigator called Jose Maria Simon de Guilleuma – an optometrist, scientific instrument collector and amateur historian from Barcelona. He was so intrigued by Sirtori’s account that he spent probably a decade or more sifting through numerous Spanish and French archival sources – and in so doing verified much of Sirtori’s story.
Fascinating stuff! And furthermore, when I combined Simon’s findings with more up-to-date research, a brand new narrative of the invention of the telescope presented itself, which I believe joins all the disparate pieces together (in a kind of intellectual history sort of way).
I wrote up my findings and reconstruction, sanity checked them with several very experienced telescope historians, and submitted them as a fairly substantial article to History Today (it’s on the front cover, you can’t miss it). Perhaps it’ll cause a stir, perhaps not – but all the same, it’s certainly a fully-rounded hypothesis which I hope will prove to be a spur to other historians and researchers to look that bit further.
There’s a short piece in the Guardian today by Ian Sample, and I did a short interview on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning: there’s also a longer piece in El Mundo, and doubtless several more to come out this week. But for the full story, you’ll have to buy a copy of History Today for yourself… 🙂