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… 🙂

6 thoughts on ““History Today” Spanish telescope article…

  1. Hi in the voynich writing ive noticed that if you put a stroke for line going down and anything that could make a circle you would get this off one of the lines -….-.–.-.-.–.—.–.-.-.–.- if you cut in half the writing and use the bottom half counting c a o as . and lines as – thats what you get use bacons code abbba or baaaab and see what you get cos i aint bothering lol probably says one flew over the co co nest.any way try breaking this cipher for me at the stringed disk. chris.w

  2. Nick: Great blog, really informative and very extensive. I only want to clarify for your readers, that rather than my theory proposing the Voynich contains, “…images of telescopes disguised as strange tiered albarelli”. I do propose that the Voynich contains optics, but most likely microscopes, and less likely telescopes. Telescopes were proportionately much longer than the tubes in the manuscript. The example of Galileo’s telescope is included on my site only to show how optics were constructed, and decorated, in the time frame my theory proposes:

    Also, I do not believe they were “disguised as albarelli”. They look quite like optics to me, as they are. Thank you for the comments, and keep up the great work. Rich.

  3. Pingback: Tecnología Obsoleta » Blog Archive » ¿Quién inventó el telescopio?

  4. That’s quite true, telescopes were proportionately much longer than the tubes in the manuscript.

  5. To be precise, Richard SantaColoma’s suggestion was that the tubes in the Voynich Manuscript might be microscopes, rather than telescopes per se. However, the timeline doesn’t really seem to work, given that the frequently-suggested notion that microscopes may have been invented in “1590” or “1595” seems just plain wrong. In fact, 1619/1620 is just about the earliest plausible date, with Drebbel and Galileo both strong candidates: yet the Voynich Manuscript was apparently bought by Rudolf II, who died in 1612!

    Oh, and never mind the apparently 15th century handwriting: but what are a few facts between friends? 🙂

  6. Wow, fascinating article that I just stumbled upon here! It’s amazing to think that someone spent over 10 years verifying this stuff. Now, that’s what I call some serious passion!

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