History of the telescope

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     History of the telescope.

 

 

 

The Telescope

 

The telescope was one of the central instruments of what has been called the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century. It revealed hitherto unsuspected phenomena in the heavens and had a profound influence on the controversy between followers of the traditional geocentric astronomy and cosmology and those who favored the heliocentric  system of Copernicus. It was the first extension of one of man's senses, and demonstrated that ordinary observers could see things that the great Aristotle had not dreamed of. It therefore helped shift authority in the observation of nature from men to instruments. In short, it was the prototype of modern scientific instruments. But the telescope was not the invention of scientists; rather, it was the product of craftsmen. For that reason, much of its origin is inaccessible to us since craftsmen were by and large illiterate and therefore historically often invisible.

 

Although the magnifying and diminishing properties of convex and concave transparent objects was known in Antiquity, lenses as we know them were introduced in the West at the end of the thirteenth century. Glass of reasonable quality had become relatively cheap and in the major glass-making centers of Venice and Florence techniques for grinding and polishing glass had reached a high state of development. Now one of the perennial problems faced by aging scholars could be solved. With age, the eye progressively loses its power to accommodate, that is to change its focus from faraway objects to nearby ones. This condition, known as presbyopia, becomes noticeable for most people in their forties, when they can no longer focus on letters held at a comfortable distance from the eye. Magnifying glasses became common in the thirteenth century, but these are cumbersome, especially when one is writing. Craftsmen in Venice began making small disks of glass, convex on both sides, that could be worn in a frame--spectacles. Because these little disks were shaped like lentils, they became known as "lentils of glass," or (from the Latin) lenses. The earliest illustrations of spectacles date from about 1350, and spectacles soon came to be symbols of  learning.

 

These spectacles were, then, reading glasses. When one had trouble reading, one went to a spectacle-maker's shop or a peddler of spectacles and found a suitable pair by trial and error. They were, by and large, glasses for the old. spectacles for the young, concave lenses that correct the refractive error known as myopia, were first made (again in Italy) in the middle of the fifteenth century. So by about 1450 the ingredients for making a telescope were there. The telescopic effect can be achieved by several combinations of concave and convex mirrors and lenses. Why was the telescope not invented in the fifteenth century? There is no good answer to this question, except perhaps that lenses and mirrors of the appropriate strengths were not available until later.

 

In the literature of white magic, so popular in the sixteenth century, there are several tantalizing references to devices that would allow one to see one's enemies or count coins from a great distance. But these allusions were cast in obscure language and were accompanied by fantastic claims; the telescope, when it came, was a very humble and simple device. It is possible that in the 1570s Leonard and Thomas Digges in England actually made an instrument consisting of a convex lens and a mirror, but if this proves to be the case, it was an experimental setup that was never translated into a mass-produced device.

 

The telescope was unveiled in the Netherlands. In October 1608, the States General (the national government) in The Hague discussed the patent applications first of Hans Lipperhey of Middelburg, and then of Jacob Metius of Alkmaar, on a device for "seeing faraway things as though nearby." It consisted of a convex and concave lens in a tube, and the combination magnified three or four times. The gentlemen found the device too easy to copy to award the patent, but it voted a small award to Metius and employed Lipperhey to make several binocular versions, for which he was paid handsomely. It appears that another citizen of Middelburg, Sacharias Janssen had a telescope at about the same time but was at the Frankfurt Fair where he tried to sell it.

 

Isaac Newton is credited with building the first "practical" reflector in 1668 with a design that incorporated a small flat diagonal mirror to reflect the light to an eyepiece mounted on the side of the telescope. Laurent Cassegrain in 1672 described the design of a reflector with a small convex secondary mirror to reflect light through a central hole in the main mirror.

 


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It revealed hitherto unsuspected phenomena in the heavens and had a profound influence on the controversy between followers of the traditional geocentric astronomy and cosmology and those who favored the heliocentric system of Copernicus. It was the first extension of one of man's senses, and demonstrated that ordinary observers could see things that the great Aristotle had not dreamed of. It therefore helped shift authority in the observation of nature from men to instruments. In short, it was the prototype of modern scientific instruments. But the telescope was not the invention of scientists; rather, it was the product of craftsmen. For that reason, much of its origin is inaccessible to us since craftsmen were by and large illiterate and therefore historically often invisible.
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