Galileos First Ideas About Telescopes

Galileo is correctly credited with the first use of the telescope for viewing objects in the heavens, but letters between him and friends suggest that he first had other, more pragmatic applications for the telescope. He believed that he could make money selling his telescopes to wealthy Italian princes so that they could use them for military purposes. In Zdenek Kopal's book Telescopes in Space, the author provides two such letters, the first dating from 1609 and the second from 1610.

One letter to the Doge of Venice suggests that telescopes would be best suited as instruments of war:

The power of my cannocchiale [telescope] to show distant objects as clearly as if they were near should give us an inestimable advantage in any military action on land or sea. At sea, we shall be able to spot their flags two hours before they can see us; and when we have established the number and type of the enemy craft, we shall be able to decide whether to pursue and engage him in battle, or take flight. Similarly, on land it should be possible from elevated positions to observe the enemy camps and their fortifications.

Less than a year later, when Galileo was seeking employment as a mathematician at the palace of the Grand Duke of Tuscany in the city of Florence, he wrote about his telescope: "I have many and most admirable devices; but they could only be put to work by princes because it is they who are able to carry on wars, build and defend fortresses, and for their regal sport make most splendid expenditures."

Pictured is a reconstruction of Galileo's telescope. Initially, Galileo believed the telescope would best serve as an instrument of war.

tary, sailors at sea, and long-distance signaling. Galileo, however, would soon liberate these early telescopes from their limited terrestrial applications.

In early 1610, while sitting at his outside worktable in the evening, Galileo did something far more intriguing and prophetic with his telescope than simply taking another look at a distant church spire or sailing ship. He tilted one of his many lookers skyward and pulled up a chair for a more comfortable view. Staring into space, Galileo moved the cylinder around until he began spotting distant objects in the solar system. Stunned by the unexpected density of stars and planets, Galileo recorded the first fundamental discoveries about the solar system that could not be noted with the naked eye. Pointing the looker at the moon, he was dumbfounded to discover its surface texture

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