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Thomas Digges and the Telescope June 10, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

***Dedicated to Larry who sent this one in***

Thomas Digges (1595) is one of those footnotes in history who perhaps deserves a page, a chapter or even a book to himself. An Elizabethan military engineer, Digges also wrote on astronomy and translated Copernicus into English and, fundamentally for the present argument, he pushed the use of experimentation in astronomy, letting the dead letters of Plato and Aristotle just drop away. TD also, and our voice trembles as we say it, may have used the telescope to observe the heavens a generation before Galileo.

What is the proof? Well, in his book on geometrical methods in surveying, Pantometria, published in 1571 he described ‘perspective glasses’.

By these kind of Glasses or rather frames of them, placed in due Angles, yee may not only set out the proportion of an whole region, yea represent before your eye the liuey image of euery Town, Villages &c. and that in as little or great space or places as yes will prescribe, but also augment and dilate any parcel thereof, so that whereas the first appearance an whole Towne shall present it selfe so small and compact together that yee shall not discerne anye difference of streates, yee may by application of Glasses in due proportion cause any peculaire house, or roume thereof dilate and shew it selfe in as ample forme as the whole town first appeared, so that ye shall discerne any trifle, or reade any letter lying there open, especially if the sunne beames may come vnto it, as plainly as if you were corporally present…

Oh the Elizabethans had English to die for… Anyway, there can be no question here – can there? – that Digges is describing some kind of telescope.

An anonymous author who published ‘Thomas Digges: Unsung Hero of Astronomy’ on Astrochix has this to add.

Later in the paragraph [quoted above] Digges mentions a separate volume of the ‘miraculous effect of perspective glasses’, unfortunately this volume has never been found. The existence of ‘perspective glasses’ is also corroborated in a treatise written by William Bourne in 1580. It’s tempting to believe Thomas Digges used these ‘perspective glasses’ to view the heavens, perhaps that’s what even convinced him of the ‘infinite’ nature of stars. Unfortunately there does not seem to be a direct record of him doing so. However, in 1579 Digges printed a list ‘Bookes Begon by the Author, hereafter to be published’, among which was this comment: Commentaries upon the Revolutions of Copernicus, by evidente Demonstrations grounded upon late observations, to ratify and confirme hys Theorikes and Hypothesis….’ The comment ‘late observations’ is interesting and could be taken to mean that Digges did in fact use ‘perspective glasses’ to make astronomical observations. Incidentally, Thomas Harriot, another English astronomer who corresponded with Digges, traveled to Virginia in 1585, carrying a ‘perspective glass’ – again long before Galileo used one in 1609 to view Jupiter and it’s moons.

It is pretty exciting stuff. Digges undertook his astronomical work from c. 1570-c. 1580: like many irritating polymaths, he dealt with acres of knowledge in a decade and made hay. It is simply inconceivable, given his hands on approach and his interests, that he would not have pointed his perspective glasses at the heavens. The question is what he saw there and whether he made his own deductions based on those findings. Our anonymous author thinks there may be a way to carry this forward.

Francis Johnson made a point in his book Astronomical Thought in Renaissance England, that Digges has a number of letters preserved in the British Museum, which remain unexamined. Mr Johnson believed that careful examination of these records, may provide clues about the development of the telescope.

Anyone based in London with a BM card in their pocket want to dethrone Galileo? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com Immortality awaits you

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23 June 2012: Larry did almost all the spadework here. First up are his own comments:  ‘I am rather excited at the possibility it may stir someone to check into his writings more and discover that he did use the telescope for astronomy before Galileo!  And I think we and others know that Galileo was not the first to do so even without formal records, he was just very good at promoting himself.  Not that Galileo didn’t deserve it, but he did once claim that God had chosen him to reveal the heavens to humanity.  Oy. Oh, and I read a piece from one of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks dated 1508 that clearly shows the man knew what a telescope was all about and may have actually used it ONE CENTURY before Galileo!  And I recall vague items about the ancient Muslims and others using quartz lens for observing.  We of course know the Europeans had eye glasses in the Middle Ages, so how hard would it have been to put one lens in front of another to see what one could see?’ For Larry’s writing on Leonardo and the telescope. Larry then publicised the article among an online group and this was some of the material that they came up with. Peter Usher wrote: ‘William Shakespeare has chronicled post-Copernican pre-Galilean telescopic results that prove the correctness of heliocentricism and make the case for an infinite universe. The argument is made in my book “Shakespeare and the Dawn of Modern Science” 2010.’ Some passages from “Shakespeare and the Dawn of Modern Science” (Cambria Press 2010) where Shakespeare discusses contemporary world models and telescopic results: (pp.88-90) From “Hamlet”, Laertes to Ophelia, speaking of love (i.e. Venus): “… nature crescent does not grow alone … as this temple waxes … it grows wide withal”, i.e. Venus has phases like the Moon. Speaking of chastity (i.e. the Moon), there are adages and a botanical conceit: “Virtue itself scapes not calumnious strokes”, “canker galls the infants of the spring … contagious blastments are most immanent … Fear it Ophelia …”, i.e. she must beware becoming like the watery star, named for Artemis, the “high source of water”, with its craters that resemble cankers and pock marks.  (pp.97-8, 236-7, 292) from “Hamlet”, “Merchant of Venice” and “Winter’s Tale”, a father and son, representing Leonard and Thomas Digges (where a “leonard” is a type of hawk or falcon), Old Gobbo young Gobbo (where a “gobbo” is a hawk) and Shepherd and son (where Apollo was originally a shepherd) greet one another with cries of a falconer.   (pp.108-9) From “Hamlet”, Claudius the king (= Claudius Ptolemy) who is concerned about the threat to geocentricism, to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Tycho) who are essentially geocentricists too, concerning Hamlet (= Thomas Digges) who has transformed the bounded Ptolemaic system in his 1576 essay: “… Hamlet’s transformation … nor the exterior nor the inward man resembles that it was.” (pp.117-8) From “Hamlet”, Hamlet could be “bounded by a nutshell” and count himself the “king of infinite space” were it not that he has bad dreams. Tycho’s model was smaller than Ptolemy’s, both were bounded, and Hamlet (=T. Digges) fears persecution. (pp. 126-7) From “Hamlet”, the prince states, “I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.” NNW from Tycho’s Hven lies Elsinore (Helsingor), almost due south lies Wittenberg, whose university was the first to teach heliocentricism. Madness lies to the NNW, but the south is favourable. To the south, Hamlet can distinguish a hawk from a handsaw, where “leonard” (Leonard Digges) is a type of hawk and “handsaw” refers to de Gheyn’s engravings in which Tycho is depicted with swapped hands.     (pp.138-40) From “Hamlet”, Rosencrantz warns Claudius that when the geocentric model with huge spokes and wheels collapses it will bring down 10,000 lesser things, these being the approximately 10,000 stars visible to the naked eye to about 6th mag.   (pp.141-3) From “Hamlet”, descriptions of a resolved Mars and Jupiter, the latter with an “eye”. (pp.180-4) From “Cymbeline”, description of Galileo’s “Sidereus Nuncius” (“The Starry Messenger”), which is a book delivered by god Jupiter (the starry messenger), at the behest of four ghosts performing a dance in imitation of the moons of Jupiter, whose discovery Galileo announced in “Sidereus Nuncius”. (pp.197-207) From “Cymbeline”, Giacomo (= Galileo) with the help of a “trunk” (the contemporary English term for a perspective glass or 2-element telescope) observes a heavenly body in a chamber with its “ten thousand meaner movables” that lie “above” (= 10,000 naked eye stars), and other results reported in “Sidereus Nuncius”.  (pp.227-30, 252-3) From “Cymbeline” and “Merchant of Venice”, descriptions of Saturn and rings. (pp. 311-6) Evidence that Leonard Digges (born c.1521) did not die in 1571 as his son reported.  Sarah Schechner then contributed the following: The discussions on this list of predecessors to the Dutch telescope have become speculative and ungrounded in historical documentation. And yet, since the recent 400th anniversary of the invention of the telescope, a lot of solid research has been published about possible predecessors.  For those interested in this topic, I recommend the following: Sven Duprï¿œ, “William Bourne’s invention.  Projecting a telescope and optical speculation in Elizabethan England,” in _Origins of the Telescope  _, ed. By Albert van Helden et al. (Amsterdam:  KNAW Press, 2010). He cites many primary and secondary works relevant to this topic.  Also see the rest of this volume. Eileen Reeves, _Galileo’s Glassworks:  The Telescope and the Mirror_(Cambridge:  Harvard Univ. Press, 2008). She looks at the long cultural history of claims of optical devices to see things far off.  There is a lot of good material here, although I think she makes the mistake of presuming all “mirrors that show things far away” to be telescopic instruments rather than divination instruments used for scrying. Other works include: Alison D. Morrison-Low, et al., eds., _From Earth-Bound to Satellite:  Telescopes, Skills and Networks_, Scientific Instruments and Collections, 2 (Leiden: Brill, 2012). Giorgio Strano, ed., _Galileo’s Telescope_ (Florence:  Giunti, 2008). The bottom line:  The so-called 16th century telescopes were projects that were never carried out, or could not have worked as claimed due to craftsmanship, technological, and optical theory problems that were not resolved until much later.’ Finally, the only non Larry contribution. This comes from Oz: ‘While I admit to a general distrust of new-age authors, I must recommend Robert Temple’s “The Crystal Sun”  (London, Arrow Books, 2000).  I think he extrapolates a bit to readily and perhaps too wildly, but he does at least provide references to his sources, and those I have checked have been accurate.  Perhaps he is correct, that optics in general, and telescopes in particular, were known to the Greeks, if not earlier.  He develops his arguments in Chapter 6, titled “The Disappearing Telescope.”  I can’t say he convinced me that telescopes were invented prior to 1500, but he certainly convinced me that it isn’t impossible, and that there is some evidence of it.’ Thanks to Larry and his team and to Oz!

31 August 2012: I (Beach) have excerpted this material from an online list supplied by Larry (to whom thanks as always). Peter D. Usher: Another piece of solid research that should not be overlooked is Michael Gainer’s: “Construction of a 16th-Century Telescope: An Experiment in the History of Astronomy” (Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada Vol 103, No.1, 18-21, 2009). The experiment comprised constructing a telescope using optical components, materials, and methods available in the mid-16th century, following Digges’ descriptions. Gainer concludes that lunar craters, phases of Venus and a ring of Saturn would have been observable. Schechner, Sara ‘The discussions on this list of predecessors to the Dutch telescope have become speculative and ungrounded in historical documentation. And yet, since the recent 400th anniversary of the invention of the telescope, a lot of solid research has been published about possible predecessors.  For those interested in this topic, I recommend the following: Sven Duprïœ, “William Bourne’s invention.  Projecting a telescope and optical speculation in Elizabethan England,” in Origins of the Telescope, ed. By Albert van Helden et al. (Amsterdam:  KNAW Press, 2010). He cites many primary and secondary works relevant to this topic.  Also see the rest of this volume. Eileen Reeves, _Galileo’s Glassworks:  The Telescope and the Mirror_(Cambridge:  Harvard Univ. Press, 2008). She looks at the long cultural history of claims of optical devices to see things far off.  There is a lot of good material here, although I think she makes the mistake of presuming all “mirrors that show things far away” to be telescopic instruments rather than divination instruments used for scrying. Other works include: Alison D. Morrison-Low, et al., eds., _From Earth-Bound to Satellite: Telescopes, Skills and Networks_, Scientific Instruments and Collections, 2 (Leiden: Brill, 2012). Giorgio Strano, ed., _Galileo’s Telescope_ (Florence:  Giunti, 2008). The bottom line:  The so-called 16th century telescopes were projects that were never carried out, or could not have worked as claimed due to craftsmanship, technological, and optical theory problems that were not resolved until much later. Sara . Thanks to Larry for allowing this!