The Telescope: A Short History

Graham Southorn on a brief look at the first optical instrument

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Reviewed by: Graham Southorn
Author: Richard Dunn
Publisher: National Maritime Museum
Price (RRP): £12.99

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Dollond is a name you probably associate more with a pair of bifocals than the cutting edge of science. Yet as Richard Dunn reveals in The Telescope: A Short History, John Dollond of Spitalfields, east London, made a pioneering contribution to the instrument’s design.

In 1758, he corrected an optical flaw in the type of telescope popularised by Galileo 150 years earlier. His clever arrangement of lenses thereby ensured that telescopes could be, and indeed were, manufactured in a variety of shapes and sizes. They included sights for navigational aids, opera glasses and instruments for the military. The Royal Navy even used ‘Dollond’ as a slang expression for telescope.

Dunn, a curator at the National Maritime Museum, has ambitiously attempted to tell the instrument’s entire history in under 166 pages. The book’s slightly longer, because it includes a glossary of scientific terms and illustrations of telescopes at the back. But it’s a somewhat staccato read because nothing is left out. Interesting characters appear and disappear in the space of a single paragraph to keep the story moving, from antiquity right up to the proposed successor to the Hubble space telescope, which is currently in orbit around Earth.

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The more fascinating parts, though, reveal how the telescope permeated the arts, by chronicling its appearance in paintings, plays and books. Galileo’s discoveries are writ large in Adam Elsheimer’s 1609 painting The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, which is reproduced in the book. And even John Milton tips a hat to the freshly revealed universe in his 1667 poem Paradise Lost. The Telescope is fascinating, but it would have benefited from a little more culture.