World's oldest telescope?
BBC News Online: Sci/Tech
Monday, June 28, 1999
Published at 21:53 GMT 22:53 UK
World's oldest telescope?
By BBC News Online Science Editor Dr David Whitehouse
If one Italian scientist is correct then the telescope was not invented
sometime in the 16th century by Dutch spectacle makers, but by ancient
Assyrian astronomers nearly three thousand years earlier.
According to Professor Giovanni Pettinato of the University of Rome, a rock
crystal lens, currently on show in the British museum, could rewrite the
history of science. He believes that it could explain why the ancient
Assyrians knew so much about astronomy.
But experts on Assyrian archaeology are unconvinced. They say that the lens
is of such low quality that it would have been a poor aid to vision.
It is called the Nimrud lens and it was found in 1850 by the legendary
archaeologist Sir John Layard, during an epic series of excavations at the
palace of Nimrud in what is now Iraq.
Upon his return to England, he showed the lens to physicist Sir David
Brewer who thought it could have been used as a magnifying glass or to
concentrate the Sun's rays.
Used as a magnifying glass, it could have been useful to Assyrian craftsman
who often made intricate seals and produced minuscule texts on clay tablets
using a wedge-shaped script.
It is a theory many scientists might be prepared to accept, but the idea
that the rock crystal was part of a telescope is something else. To get
from a lens to a telescope, they say, is an enormous leap.
Professor Pettinato counters by asking for an explanation of how the
ancient Assyrians regarded the planet Saturn as a god surrounded by a ring
Could they not have seen Saturn's rings through their telescope and
interpreted them as serpents? An unconvincing argument, say experts. The
Assyrians saw serpents everywhere. And why is it in their many astronomical
reports on clay tablets there is no mention of such a device?
The conventional understanding of the invention of the telescope is that it
was developed in the 16th century by Dutch spectacle-makers who held one
lens in front of another.
One thing is sure: Galileo did not invent it - a common misconception -
although he was one of the first to turn it towards the sky. By then,
lenses used as spectacles had been known for hundreds of years at least,
and it has been a puzzle to historians why it took so long for the
telescope to be invented.
Commercial and military use
It may have been developed and then forgotten, or even kept secret.
However, experts regard this as unlikely given the commercial and military
uses that a telescope could serve.
Whatever its origin, as ornament, as magnifying lens or part of a
telescope, the Nimrud lens is the oldest lens in the world. Looking at it
evokes mystery and wonder. It can be seen in room 55 of the British Museum,
in case 9 of the Lower Mesopotamian Gallery
It may not be unique. Another, possibly 5th century BC, lens was found in a
sacred cave on Mount Ida on Crete. It was more powerful and of far better
quality than the Nimrud lens.
Also, Roman writers Pliny and Seneca refer to a lens used by an engraver in
Pompeii. So perhaps the ancients knew more about lenses than we give them
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