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Like so many things that we take for granted today, binoculars were not invented as binoculars but required many ideas, flashes of inspiration, and implementation in practical application by lots of clever people.
Who Invented Binoculars?
So there is no single person “who invented binoculars”. Throughout history, many scholars, inventors, and other clever minds have made discoveries and inventions that have made modern binoculars possible. Let’s look at what it took to turn the first reading stones into modern hand-held glasses.
Ancient Rock Crystal Lenses
Some of the earliest lenses can be found in old ancient Egyptian statues. The lenses are made of glass or polished quartz crystal and are apparently used for decorative purposes. These lenses are embedded in the anatomically correct represented eyes of many statues of the 4th and 5th dynasties.
One of the oldest known rock crystal lenses is the Nimrud lens. It was found by the English archaeologist Austen Henry Layard in 1850 during excavations in a palace in the ancient city of Nimrud which belongs to Iraq today. The purpose of the lens, which is more than 3000 years old, is not quite clear, it could have been used as a magnifying glass or burning glass or just a nice decorative object.
The Arabic mathematician and astronomer Ibn al-Haytham (965-1039) – also known as Alhazen, describes the basics of geometric optics in his work “The Book of Optics“. Among other things, he describes in his work a hemispherical glass segment (kind of a lens), with the help of which an object appears enlarged. Even though Alhazen thus laid the theoretical basis for what lenses should look like, there are no records that Alhazen has used the idea of the reading stone in practice.
It wasn’t until Vitello (1220-1280) translated Alhazen’s “Book of Optics” from Arabic to Latin that scholars in Europe became aware of it. Monasteries maintained a lively exchange of knowledge and the work spread very quickly among the monks.
The Franciscan order, in particular, excelled in the spread of technology and knowledge. The Franciscan monk Roger Bacon applied essential findings on physical optics and believed that spherical segments made of glass were excellent tools for the visually impaired. It was probably primarily about enabling older monks to read the scriptures again.
First Lenses used in eyeglasses
It is difficult to say who really discovered the first glasses. Roger Bacon has done important preliminary work and many books give him credit for inventing the magnifying glass.
From then on, progress was made quickly. Glasses were made in Venice as early as the 13th century. Many old frescoes and paintings from the 14th century show monks and scholars wearing glasses.
The economic benefits of glasses were quickly recognized. People who could see better were more productive in their professional lives and could participate better in daily life.
From the beginning of the 15th century, the wearing of glasses became common. The profession of a “spectacular maker” came into being.
Early eyeglass frames were simply two magnifying glasses riveted together on the handles so that they could grip the nose. These are known as “rivet spectacles”.
When were binoculars invented?
Well, it’s a long story: over 2000 years ago the ancient scholars had started to study optics and the theory of light, its propagation, and the laws of light refraction.
However, it took until 1608 until all of this knowledge was put into practice and the first usable optical instrument was discovered, with which one could enlarge distant objects so that they appeared to be much closer to the observer than they really were.
In the early 16 hundreds, the Dutch lens grinder and spectacle maker Hans Lipperhey experimented with optical lenses and found out that when a convex lens and a concave lens were arranged in a certain way along an optical axis, distant objects are shown enlarged as if they were near.
In 1608, Hans Lipperhey then tried to apply for a patent for a device that could enlarge objects and make far objects appear larger and closer to the observer with the help of optical lenses. He is considered to be one of the first to invent a kind of telescope as we know it today.
The news of the miraculous device Lipperhey had invented quickly spread among the scholars of Europe and many continued to experiment and improve the simple telescope that Lipperhey had built first.
The Italian astronomer, physicist, and engineer, Galileo Galilei, took on Lippershey’s idea and constructed such a device himself in 1609. He used his Galilean telescope to look at celestial objects and changed the world with his discoveries in astronomy
A Galilean telescope is a very simple construction consisting of only one concave lens and one convex lens. The convex lens serves as an objective, the concave lens serves as an eyepiece.
The lenses are located on opposite sides of a tube so that the focal point of the objective lens coincides with the focal point of the ocular lens.
A little later, in 1611, Johann Kepler, the great astronomer, describes a new telescope construction. It is known today as the Keplerian telescope. Its characteristic is the use of a convex lens as an eyepiece instead of the concave lens used in Galilean binoculars. The eyepiece and objective are set up at the distance of their added focal lengths. The field of view is much wider than with the Galileo telescope.
Kepler’s telescopes produce an image rotated by 180 ° for the observer. It is upside down compared to the original and is reversed. When moving the telescope tube, the projected image moves in the opposite direction. This reversed upside-down image can be corrected with the help of additional lenses or prisms.
Johann Friedrich Voigtländer
The Austrian optician and inventor Johann Friedrich Voigtländer was one of the first who invented binoculars in 1823 that had practical use.
He simply aligned two telescopes parallel to each other so that the user could look through both tubes at the same time and thus he had built the opera-glass. These simple binoculars did not yet have prisms, offered a small field of view, and had only marginal magnification, but these were very simple forms of the binoculars principle. So, the first binoculars were invented in 1823, they were still not very advanced, but other inventors quickly improved them.
The Italian engineer and inventor Ignazio Porro is the inventor of the Porro prism that is used in monoculars, binoculars, and stereomicroscopes. The Porro prism, which was patented in 1854, made it possible to reverse the 180-degree reversal of the image projected in theKeplerian telescope so that the viewer sees an image that corresponds to reality. For this, he used two half-cube prisms, which were placed at 90 degrees to each other. Ignazio Porro built a monocular that, with the reversing effect of the Porro prism, provided the observer with upright correct images.
Moritz Carl Hensoldt a German inventor and co-founder of an optical and precision engineering company in Wetzlar experimented in 1892 and 1893 with image-inverting prism combinations, and how to improve the well-known opera glasses with them.
A couple of years later, Hensoldt presented the first binoculars with five-sided roof prisms the Penta 7×29, Model A that was able to provide the user with so-called “standing images”, images as we see them today when looking through prism binoculars.
The Penta 7×29, Model A
Carl Zeiss was a German scientific instrument maker, optician, and businessman who founded the Carl Zeiss workshop in Jena in 1846. The company is still in operation today as Carl Zeiss AG, they are world leaders in making quality optical instruments.
Zeiss gathered some of the best engineering and theoretical opticians and glassmakers to redesign most aspects of optical instrument manufacturing. His collaboration with Ernst Abbe revolutionized the optical theory and practical design of binoculars and microscopes
Friedrich Otto Schott a German chemist, glass technologist, and inventor of borosilicate glass founded in 1884 together with Dr. Ernst Abbe and Carl Zeiss a company focusing on technical and optical glass, Schott & Associates in Jena. Together, they continued to research optical glass and discovered new types of glass with new and improved optical properties.
On July 9, 1893, the Carl Zeiss company applied for a patent for a type of Porro prism binoculars. One could well say that they are the ones who invented binoculars, as most modern handheld binoculars that are available today have many similarities with this patent application from 1893.
Modern Binoculars and Telescopes
Like all technical devices and inventions, binoculars are also subject to constant progress. Modern binoculars as we know them today are the result of the ideas and inventions of several clever minds in world history. The early inventors of binoculars would surely be excited about all the optical instruments which have become so commonplace in today’s everyday life and are also affordable for everyone. Whether compact binoculars for nature observers or high-performance telescopes in astronomy, they have changed our view of the world.