Telescope stories: the height of fashion

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Looking at the collection of telescopes in the Royal Observatory, it's notable just how many hand-held instruments we have. This is mainly because although we usually think of the telescope as an instrument for astronomy, most of those ever made were for far much more earthly purposes. And to their makers and sellers they were above all commercial products.

F8718-001.JPGPortable telescope by George Willdey, about 1710

This now slightly damaged telescope is one of our decidedly commercial examples. It was made in about 1710 by a London maker called George Willdey. With its black shagreen barrel, gold-tooled green leather draw tubes and ivory fittings, it was obviously a luxury item for the rich and fashionable of the metropolis.

This point becomes even clearer when you look at the range of stuff Willdey sold, shown in one of his advertisements from the same period.

F8629.jpgAdvertisement for George Willdey's shop

At the time, all these different items would have been classed as 'toys', meaning not children's playthings but small fashionable items for adults, such as fans, snuff boxes, writing tools and game pieces. Willdey's advert shows quite beautifully that the telescope could be not just a tool of science, but also a firmly commercial luxury item.

You can hear more about George Willdey and his telescopes at our forthcoming conference, The Long View, in July.