On September 25, 1608, a Dutch spectacle maker named Hans Lipperhey applied for a peculiar patent. About his invention Lipperhey wrote, “All things at a very great distance can be seen as if they were nearby, by looking through glasses . . .” Although lenses and eyeglasses had been manufactured since the fourteenth century, Lipperhey com- bined two lenses to create the first documented telescope.
By 1609, telescopes were on sale in Paris, demonstrated in Germany and Italy, and had attracted the attention of Galileo. After hearing the scantest details about such a device, Galileo made his own telescope in less than twenty-four hours. Galileo greatly improved on the design and began pointing the scope skyward. He documented the craters of the Moon, the phases of Venus, the moons of Jupiter, and even spots on the Sun. He then observed never-before-seen stars and published his observations.
The larger the telescope, the better the view. And so a new generation of astronomers began making their telescopes bigger—some reaching gigantic proportions. In the mid-1600s, Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens worked with his brother Constantijn to construct a tubeless telescope in which the two lenses were separated by 123 feet. Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius topped that with a 150-foot-long mon- strosity that he claimed was easy to use (with the help of a crew of assistants operating the ropes and pulleys).
The use of the lenses that gave refracting telescopes their name also meant that they had a limited size. If the lenses were too large, their weight could not be adequately supported. The largest refractor in the world is forty inches in diameter and is still used at the Yerkes Observa- tory on Geneva Lake in Williams Bay, Wisconsin.
English scientist Isaac Newton revolutionized telescope design by producing the first usable reflecting telescope in 1668. Instead of using lenses, Newton positioned two mirrors to reflect the image into the glass eyepiece. The design made telescopes more compact and had no size limit.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, observatories used to be the official timekeepers for cities. To better inform the public, observatories set up time balls that they would drop at noon each day. People could look up and see the ball drop and know what time it was. Starting in 1907, New Yorkers made a ball, very similar to those used by observatories, with one addition: lights. On New Year’s Eve 1907, they dropped the ball in Times Square, and it has been a tradition ever since.