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Hans Lipperhey (d. 1619)

Hans Lipperhey was born in Wesel (western Germany) and settled in Middelburg, the capital of Zeeland, the southwesternmost province of the Netherlands, where he married in 1594 and became a citizen in 1602. His craft was that of spectacle-maker. Middelburg was a flourishing city, especially after the fall of Antwerp to the Spanish in 1585, which caused many of its Protestant inhabitants to flee north to the Netherlands.

Minute of Lipperhey's patent application

New glass-making techniques were introduced here by Italians in the 1590s, and perhaps some ideas about combining lenses were abroad in this glass-making community. Although others have claimed the invention of the telescope and the device was impossible to keep secret, the earliest record of the existence of such a device is a letter of the government of Zeeland to its delegation to the States General of the Netherlands, dated 25 September 1608, which instructs them to be of help to the bearer, "who claims to have a certain device by means of which all things at a very great distance can be seen as if they were nearby, by looking through glasses which he claims to be a new invention."[1] On 2 October the States General discussed Lipperhey's application for a patent on the instrument. Although the patent was eventually denied because it was felt that the device could not be kept a secret, Lipperhey made several binocular telescopes for the States General and was paid handsomely for his services.

Shortly after that, the States General were also petitioned by Jacob Metius of Alkmaar, a city in the north of the Netherlands, who also claimed to be the inventor. The claim of yet a third person, Sacharias Janssen, also a spectacle-maker in Middelburg, emerged several decades later. The surviving records are not sufficient to decide who was the actual (or as it was put in the seventeenth century, the first) inventor of the telescope. All we can say is that Lipperhey's patent application is the earliest record of an actually existing telescope.

Notes: [1] Van Helden, The Invention of the Telescope, p. 36.

Sources: Albert Van Helden, The Invention of the Telescope in Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 67 (1977), no. 4.

Image: The Hague, Algemeen Rijksarchief, MSS "Staten-Generaal," Vol. 33, f. 178v. Copyright, Algemeen Rijksarchief. Reproduced with permission.

1995 Al Van Helden
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