“We are on a minor planet of a very average star. But we can understand the Universe. That makes us something very special.”
. Professor Stephen Hawking
Chichen Itza, Mexico
Some inventions require in their process to become collective, like the invention of photography. One of those is the invention of the telescope. It has enabled us to discover our place in the universe and to reveal the mysteries and sheer scale of deep space. From time immemorial, our eyes were drawn intuitively to the sky at night even before the Egyptians made the stars and their constellations an integral part of their life and afterlife.
Many other ancient civilisations were compelled to build complex temples using their celestial knowledge. On every part of the globe, early inhabitants worshipped the Sun, the life-giver.
Nobody is quite sure who was the first to construct a practical telescope or whose genius was the first to realise the potential of this device, until :
1570 – September 1619
Dutch lens maker Hans Lippershey was the first to apply for a patent, in 1608. He was born in Wesel, Germany, and moved to Middleburg, in the Netherlands (then the Dutch Republic), in 1594. In the same year, he married, became a Dutch citizen, and opened a spectacle shop in the city. Little is known of his life, but what is clear is that he was the first person to apply for a patent for the telescope, which was called a ‘kijker’ (Dutch for ‘viewer’).
In September 1608, Lippershey travelled to The Hague, the political centre of the Dutch Republic, where he filed the patent application for his device. His application was denied because of the simplicity of the invention – it was really just two lenses held at a certain distance apart in a tube. However, the officials at The Hague saw the potential of Lippershey’s instrument and commissioned him to build three sets of double-telescope (i.e. binoculars).
The Hague, Netherlands
The Dutch State General paid Lippershey handsomely for his work: he received more than enough to buy the next house to his and pay to have major renovation work carried out. In his workshop, above, Hans Lippershey experimented with lenses during his invention of the telescope. The eyepiece lens magnifies the image produced by the larger, objective lens. The lens grinding machines and lathes are powered by treadles beneath the benches. He would have used a slightly different machine to make the larger, convex lens that collects the light (the objective lens).
Lippershey’s early telescope
As it turned out, The State General was probably justified in refusing Lippershey a patent. Within a few weeks, another Dutch spectacle maker, Jacob Metius (1571-1630), submitted a very similar application. In 1620, yet another retrospective claim for the primacy of the invention of the telescope came to light. Zacharius Janssen (1580-1638), whose house was a few doors away from Lipperhey’s may have beaten Lippershey to it.
The earliest drawing of a telescope is a sketch in a letter by Italian scholar Giambattista della Porta (1535-1615) in 1609. Della Porta later claimed he had invented the telescope years before Lippershey, but he died before he could provide evidence of his claim. In fact, it is likely that long before Lippershey many lens makers had held two lenses in the right configuration and seen a slightly magnified image, but not realised its potential.
Any uncertainty in the story of the telescope falls away in 1609, when other people heard about the new instrument, made their own, and used it for a novel and world-changing purpose: gazing at the night sky.
The first person to note that he had gazed upward in this way was an English astronomer and mathematician Thomas Harriot (1560-1621), who made a sketch of the moon as seen through his telescope in July 26,1609.
Most famously Galileo Galilei (1564-1542) did the same, and much more, four months later. He published his monumental findings in his book Sidereus Nuncius ( The Starry Messenger) in 1610. Although Lippershey was by all accounts a gifted craftsman and was the first to submit a patent application for the telescope. Galileo Galilei is the real Genius in this story. His careful and thorough observation of the moon and his discovery and observation of the moons of Jupiter were key in overturning the longstanding, dogmatic theory that the earth is the centre of the Universe.
Galileo improved the basic telescope design and by August 1609, had managed to make his own instrument with a magnification of 8x compared to Lippershey’s instrument which could only magnify 3x. In the 1620s, he became one of the first to make biological observations with microscopes.
Above are Galileo’s Telescopes from the Museum of the History of Science in Florence
Galileo was a great thinker and is often called the father of physics or even the father of modern science. He was much more a pure scientist than an inventor, and although he did invent the thermometer and the geometrical compass, he did not actually invent the telescope.
Hans Lippershey is often also credited with the invention of the microscope, or to be more precise, the compound microscope (consisting of two or more lenses, rather than one). Here again, Zaccharius Janssen probably invented the device at the same time as, if not before, Lippershey. There is no patent for the microscope because it was inevitable that at some point, someone would arrange two lenses in the right way to make things look bigger.
Lippershey’s and Jenssen’s home city of Middleburg was famous for its spectacle makers, thanks to its supply of fine-quality, bubble-free glass and to a superior lens-grinding technique developed in the city. Working with high-quality glass was a novelty in Northern Europe in the seventeenth century, the secret of its manufacture had been exported from Italy, which had had a monopoly on fine-quality glass since the thirteenth century. All of those lens grinders of Middleburg and the Italian glassmakers of the thirteenth century deserve credit for these wonderful, world-changing inventions.
NASA launch of Parker Solar Probe
On 12th August 2018, Nasa sent the Parker Solar Probe on a mission into space to be the first to ‘touch’ the sun. Like many people around the globe, I followed their work with great anticipation. I am not joking when I insist that I cannot die before any discovery of previous life on Mars would be confirmed. When some time ago, there was news of the discovery of possible traces of water on the Red Planet, I exclaimed spontaneously: ‘Motherland!’, which I have to admit sounds ridiculous. And yet, the miracle of life on our planet has fascinated humans for thousands of years.
The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) in orbit above Earth’s atmosphere has a concave mirror rather than an objective lens, to gather light. A camera inside takes pictures using that light, producing incredible clear images of a wide range of astronomical objects. The Hubble Space Telescope is named in honour of Edwin Hubble, an American astronomer who, among other things, determined that the universe extended beyond the borders of the Milky Way. Since its launch in 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope has provided a dazzling array of images that have awed and inspired the public. It provided insight into the universe, from objects as close as the Moon to the most remote galaxies, with incredible photos of supernovae and nebulous in between.
If you were to put an arrow to the little point between the two rings to the right, that’s where we are. As far as the universe is concerned, we as humans don’t exist.
It is amazing what today’s telescopes can do. One example is the images acquired by an amateur astronomer and university lecturer Russell Discombe using the telescope in his garden.
Russell Discombe and his telescope
The Elephant Trunk Nebula in Cepheus, roughly 2,400 light-years away from Earth, image below
The Heart Nebula in the constellation Cassiopeia, around 7,500 light-years away from Earth, image below
I have chosen the next inventor not only because he was a founder of antiseptic medicine and a pioneer in preventive medicine, so apt in time of pandemic and today’s mantra ‘wash your hands’, but because of his conviction that patients’ welfare is of utmost importance. As my father, a surgeon, also passionately believed that being a doctor is a vocation and not a business, and would go to unprecedented lengths to help disabled children, and the poor, I am dedicating this post to Him.
5 April 1827 – 10 February 1912
Until the late nineteenth century, patients undergoing even minor surgery had about as much chance of dying afterwards as they did of surviving. English surgeon Joseph Lister dramatically improved patients’ chances in the 1870s, by introducing antiseptics into surgery.
Joseph Lister was born in Upton, in Essex, England, to a wealthy Quaker family. The Religious Society of Friends – Quakers, was founded in the 17th century. They are pacifists with the belief that the presence of God exists in every person. His father was a man of science, who made significant improvements to microscope design. Joseph studied the arts and then medicine at University College, London, and at Oxford. Although born and educated in England, he spent most of his career in Scotland. In 1836, Lister became an assistant surgeon at Glasgow University Medical School. In 1861, Lister was put in charge of a new building with surgical wards at Glasgow Royal Infirmary. At the time, around half of the patients died as a result of the surgery – open wounds often festered, becoming badly infected, inflamed, and full of pus. Untreated, this ‘wound sepsis’ was life-threatening. The prevailing explanation of infection was the so-called ‘miasma theory’: the idea that polluted air was the cause of disease. In the filthy air of the disease-ridden cities of the nineteenth century, this was an easy connection to make. Because of this belief, surgeons carried out operations without washing their hands and surgical wards were not clean.
Surgical ward at Glasgow Royal Infirmary
Below are nineteenth century slums in Glasgow
In 1865, Lister read a report by the French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) suggesting that fermentation and rotting are caused by airborne micro-organisms. Pasteur also showed how micro-organisms can be killed by heat, filtration, or chemical attack. When Lister heard of Pasteur’s work, he realised that airborne micro-organisms might be causing wounds to turn septic. He heard that carbolic acid (phenol) had been used to stop sewage from smelling bad, and had also been sprayed onto fields, where it reduced the incidence of disease in cows.
And so, he and his surgeons began applying carbolic acid solution to wounds and using dressings that had been soaked in the same solution. In 1869, he developed a spray that would fill the air with carbolic acid, aiming to kill airborne germs. Lister also told his surgeons to wash their hands before and after operations and to wash their surgical instruments in carbolic acid solution. His results were impressive: his surgical wards remained free of sepsis and the death rate fell from 50% to 15%.
Other surgeons were slow to copy Lister’s procedures, largely because many were reluctant to accept the idea that disease can be caused by micro-organisms. When gradually, surgeons did begin using his technique, post-operative survival rates increased dramatically. It was after surgeons in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 – 1871 used Lister’s methods, saving the lives of many wounded soldiers, that Lister’s fame spread across Europe, and he began to receive the recognition he deserved.
In 1877, Lister moved back to King’s College, London, where he managed to convince many of the still-sceptical surgeons by successfully performing a complex knee operation that had nearly always proved fatal. He continued to experiment tirelessly on improving surgical techniques and reducing mortality until his retirement in 1893.
The Lister memorial in Portland Place, London
Although Lister is famous for his antiseptic methods, he also worked on ‘aseptic’ ones, attempting to keep operating theatres free from germs rather than killing them. Lister’s pioneering investigation into wound sepsis, his application of the germ theory of disease, and his success in dramatically reducing mortality make his contribution to surgery and patients’ wellbeing of the utmost importance.
Joseph Lister’s funeral procession