The history of the telescope dates back to the early 1600s. Galileo Galilei is commonly credited for inventing the telescope, but this is not accurate. Galileo was the first to use a telescope for the purpose of astronomy in 1609 (400 years ago in 2009, which is currently being celebrated as the International Year of Astronomy). Hans Lipperhey, a German spectacle maker, is generally credited as the inventor of the telescope, as his patent application is dated the earliest, on the 25th of September 1608.
Lipperhey combined curved lenses to magnify objects by up to 3 times, and eventually crafted sets of binocular telescopes for the Government of the Netherlands.
There exists some confusion as to who actually came up with the idea first. Lipperhey’s patent application is the earliest on record, so this is usually used to settle the debate, although another spectacle-maker, Jacob Metius of Alkmaar, a city in the northern part of the Netherlands, filed for a patent for the same device a few weeks after Lipperhey. Another spectacle-maker, Sacharias Janssen, also claimed to have invented the telescope decades after the initial claims by Lipperhey and Metius.
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Regardless of the inventor, most of the earliest versions of the telescope used a curved lens made of polished glass at the end of a tube to magnify objects to a factor of 3x. To learn more about how a telescope lens works, read our article on the telescope lens in the Guide to Space.
Galileo heard news of the telescope, and constructed his own version of it without ever seeing one. Instead of the initial 3 power magnification, he crafted a series of lenses that in combination allowed him to magnify things by 8, 20 and eventually 30 times. You can obtain a version of Galileo’s original telescope today, at the Galileoscope web site.
The lens telescope is still in use today in smaller telescopes, but many larger and more powerful telescopes use a reflective mirror and eyepiece combination that was initially invented by Isaac Newton. Called a “Newtonian” telescope after its inventor, these types of telescopes have a polished mirror at the end of a tube, which reflects the image into an eyepiece at the top of the tube. More information about Newtonian telescopes can be found in our Guide to Space article here.
Here’s a few more links on the history of the telescope: