Marvin Bolt & Michael Korey: Historians Discover 400-Year-Old Telescopes

Historians in the News

CHICAGO -- Like cell phones or the Internet in recent history, the telescope's introduction in the early 17th Century had a swift and lasting impact on the world. Telescopes revolutionized military strategy and within months showed the father of astronomy, Galileo Galilei, that Earth is not the center of the universe.

Until recently, scholars thought only 8 or 10 of these important early telescopes _ made between 1608 and 1650 of tightly rolled paper and crudely ground lenses _ had survived to the present day.

Then two historians on a visit to a museum in Berlin last fall had an "aha!" moment. One of the oldest known surviving telescopes at the German museum gave them an idea of places to look for other, as yet undiscovered examples.

Their insight apparently was correct. According to Marvin Bolt of Chicago's Adler Planetarium, he and his colleague found a previously unreported 1627 telescope in a Dresden museum storage room within 24 hours of their brainstorm. Less than a day later, they found a second, slightly earlier telescope that had lain unnoticed in the storage room of a museum in Kassel.
"This discovery is exciting, because it suggests further places to look for more old telescopes," said Bolt, who made the discovery with Michael Korey, a museum conservator in Germany.
Finding more early telescopes will help scientists and historians better understand who made them and how they evolved and improved over time, said Eugene Rudd, an emeritus University of Nebraska professor of physics who is a world authority on old telescopes.

"I've seen the photographs of the two Marvin has located in Germany, and they certainly have the characteristics of the very early ones," said Rudd. "I know of only eight telescopes that date before 1650 that still survive, so to find two more is extraordinary, a remarkable find."

Bolt is a technology historian at the Adler, which boasts the largest and finest collection of old scientific instruments in the Western Hemisphere, including an exquisite, leather-covered, trumpet-shaped device made in Italy around 1630.
Korey is a conservator at the Mathematisch-Physikalischer Salon in Dresden. The museum has one of the world's oldest and most renowned collections of historic scientific instruments....

On Oct. 2, he and Korey visited Berlin's Decorative Arts Museum to see a well-known telescope dating to 1617. It had been part of a collection of 17th Century scientific instruments found in a finely crafted cabinet built for a royal family to display scientific instruments _ a kunstschrank.

Such cabinets were important status symbols in wealthy 17th Century households. The idea was that, by owning a kunstschrank and its contents, the owners showed they were learned and knowledgeable as well as generous sponsors of scientists and their work.

Seeing the 1617 telescope and the elaborate cabinet it came from, Bolt said a bell went off in his head. Probably there were other old cabinets scattered around Europe that nobody had ever looked into for old telescopes.

"In a decorative arts museum," he said, "curators aren't aware of the history of telescopes, and if they have one belonging to one of these cabinets, they regard it more as a beautiful object rather than an example of early technology.

"On the other hand, I don't think any technology historians had ever thought of a decorative arts museum as a place to hunt for early telescopes."

He and Korey excitedly began thinking about canvassing museums that might own the cabinets. That night, while attending the opera back in Dresden, Korey noticed a poster advertising the loan of a 17th Century kunstschrank from Dresden's own decorative arts museum to a Budapest museum.
The following morning Korey and Bolt visited the Dresden museum director who had loaned out the cabinet. Why yes, the director said, there was an artifact belonging to the cabinet that might have been some sort of looking device, but it was in such poor shape that it was not being displayed.
"In an early inventory of the cabinet's contents, it simply listed a `perspective glass,'" not a telescope, Korey said....
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