The history of the telescope

The telescope has evolved as a key scientific instrument that has changed our perceptions of the world. 

The history of the telescope

The telescope is a simple device intended to enhance vision, making distant things appear closer. It is this that makes it so useful and versatile for use on land and at sea. Not only have many different types of telescope been made in the last four centuries, but telescopic enhancements have also been used on many other instruments and accessories.

Visit the Royal Observatory to see its diverse collection of telescope types and functions, including the telescope with which James Bradley discovered the aberration of light, telescopes for amateur and professional astronomers, and telescopes for everyday use on land and at sea.

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The invention of the telescope

Historians are not absolutely sure who invented the telescope, but it is known that in 1608 a Dutch spectacle maker, Hans Lipperhey, announced a new lens-based seeing instrument that made distant objects appear much closer. This is the first evidence we have of the invention of the telescope, the first scientific instrument to extend one of the human senses.

The use of the telescope in astronomy

Since then, the telescope has evolved as a key scientific instrument that has changed our perception of the world and the universe around us. It was in astronomy, in particular, that the telescope had an enormous impact, starting with the discoveries of Galileo Galilei whose work began to change our understanding of the universe. It was work that observatories such as the Royal Observatory at Greenwich continued in the centuries that followed.

Telescopes naturally found a home in observatories throughout the world, though most telescopes have been made for everyday use at sea and on land.



Satirical images of the telescope

The prevalence of the telescope on land, at sea and in the study of the heavens made it a readily recognisable instrument, but also an easy object for satire.

In the 18th and 19th centuries in particular, many satirical images used the telescope to make fun of science and its practitioners, as well as of military and political figures and in commentaries on society and its problems.