Telescope 'created by English'

December 13, 2002

New evidence has emerged to support suggestions that the first telescope was built by an Englishman, writes Steve Farrar.

An overlooked manuscript provides the context for claims that Elizabethan scholar Thomas Digges created an instrument in the 1570s to magnify distant objects, several decades before Dutch craftsmen devised the refracting telescope that Galileo used to study the heavens in 1609.

Sven Dupré, a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, Germany, and Ghent University, Belgium, presented his research at the History of Science Society annual meeting in the US.

A decade ago, Colin Ronan, former president of the British Association, built a working telescope following Digges's design.

But most historians have interpreted two contemporary descriptions of the instrument as imaginative speculation.

The discovery of the 16th-century manuscript written by an Italian mathematician, Ettore Ausonio, and copied by Galileo, may answer some of their objections.

Dr Dupré said Ausonio's ideas seemed to form the basis of Digges's design. He said that the volume could have been brought to Digges by his friend John Dee, an English scholar.

Dr Dupré said that it seemed Digges's telescope worked much like a camera obscura. His reliance on Ausonio's ideas, and his lack of understanding of how images were magnified, resulted in an unwieldy and limited design. No one, it seemed, copied it.

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