In 1992, a telescope built by the British astronomer and historian Colin Ronan was shown on The Sky At Night. Telescopes have been vital to science since Dutch spectacle maker Hans Lippershey patented the now-familiar arrangement of lenses in 1608.
But what made Ronan’s telescope different was that it was built to a design pre-dating Lippershey’s by decades. Ronan claimed that an Elizabethan surveyor named Leonard Digges had found a combination of a glass lens and curved mirror that also made distant objects appear closer. Descriptions of the device began to circulate around 1570, and its potential military use prompted Lord Burghley, chief adviser to Elizabeth I, to commission a report. After discovering this manuscript in the British Library, Ronan built the device, and suggested that it had a claim to being the first telescope. He also suggested Digges’s son, Thomas, had used it to observe the sky years before Galileo. Ronan’s claim has failed to convince historians, however. They argue that Elizabethan technology was not capable of making the optical components to the required quality, and that the telescope is too awkward to use in any case. So the consensus remains that Lippershey is the originator of the first working telescope.
Robert is a science writer and visiting professor of science at Aston University.