Hans Lippershay

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Editors: Neil Schlager and Josh Lauer
Date: 2001
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography
Length: 600 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1260L

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About this Person
Born: c. 1570 in Wesel, Germany
Died: 1619
Occupation: Musical instrument maker
Other Names: Lippershey, Hans
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Hans Lippershay is one of several Dutch spectacle-makers who claimed to have invented the telescope. Though the issue of priority for the invention remains clouded, the earliest mention of such a device was clearly in reference to Lippershay's 1608 patent claim.

Though the exact date of Lippershay's birth remains uncertain, it is known that he was born in Wesel around 1570. He settled in Middelburg, the provincial seat of government for Zeeland. This was the most important commercial and manufacturing center in the southwestern portion of the Netherlands and was home to the oldest glass factory in the northern provinces (established 1581). Lippershay was married in 1594 and became a citizen of Middelburg in 1602.

In September 1608, Lippershay appeared before the Committee of Councillors of Zeeland, where he demonstrated his "device by means of which all things at a very large distance can be seen as if they were nearby." He received a letter of introduction to the Zeeland delegate to the States-General in The Hague requesting an audience be arranged with Maurice of Nassau (1567-1625). The meeting was a great success and Lippershay formally applied for a patent. The States-General formed a commission to investigate Lippershay's instrument and priority claims as well as to negotiate for delivery of six binocular instrument within a year.

On October 5, 1608, Lippershay was given an advance of 300 guilders to produce one instrument built to their specifications. Within two weeks it was discovered that others possessed the art of making telescopic devices, including Sacharias Jansen (1588-c. 1628), also of Middelburg, and Jacob Adriaenszoon of Alkmaar, usually referred to as Jacob Metius. After the committee examined Lippershay's binocular scope on December 15, they pronounced it satisfactory but rejected his patent claim since knowledge of its construction was clearly possessed by others. Nevertheless, Lippershay was paid an additional 300 guilders to produce two more instruments. He delivered these on February 13, 1609, receiving a final payment of 300 guilders.

Metius claimed to have been perfecting his telescope for the previous two years. Evidence today for Jansen's priority is mainly derived from statements his son made decades after the fact. In 1634 Johannes Sachariassen claimed that in 1604 his father had copied an instrument in the possession of an Italian. In 1655 he claimed his father invented the device in 1590. The latter statement was made during an official investigation into the origins of the instrument and was clearly a self-serving prevarication since Jansen would have been two at the time. The former statement has more to recommended itself as it was made during casual conversation. However, even if he Jansen did invent the telescope in 1604, the question stands as to why it remained a secret.

The most likely explanation is that while Jansen in 1604 probably did copy an instrument--consisting of a concave and convex lens in a tube that provided a slight magnification--it was not used as a telescope. Giambattista della Porta (1538-1615) and others seem to have possessed similar instruments that they used to improve faulty vision. This was the typical use for such devices.

A likely scenario is that after Jansen and Metius learned of Lippershay's patent claim they realized they were in possession of the same device, which they had been using for other purposes. They then laid claim to the invention as their own. While it may never be known who first realized that such a device could be used to enhance normal vision for viewing objects at a distance, it remains certain that the earliest mention of a telescope is in connection with Lippershay's patent application.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|K2643410768