Page last updated at 20:22 GMT, Tuesday, 16 September 2008 21:22 UK

Controversy over telescope origin

Telescope (AP)
The traditional account places the telescope's origins in the Netherlands

New evidence suggests the telescope may have been invented in Spain, not the Netherlands or Italy as has previously been assumed.

The findings, outlined in the magazine History Today, suggest the telescope's creator could have been a spectacle-maker based in Gerona, Spain.

The first refracting telescopes were thought to have appeared in the Netherlands in 1608.

But the first examples may actually have been made for Spanish merchants.

The inventor, according to historian Nick Pelling, could have been a man called Juan Roget, who died between 1617 and 1624.

The idea subsequently travelled north to the Netherlands, where, in 1608, three separate individuals claimed the invention as their own.

Patently false?

The Dutch spectacle-maker Hans Lipperhey submitted his application for a patent on 2 October 1608.

On 14 October, reports of another man demonstrating a telescope surfaced in the Netherlands.

And on 17 October 1608, another spectacle-maker, Jacob Metius of Alkmaar, put in an independent patent for a telescope.

But Mr Pelling finds the traditional account lacking: "Throughout history, there have been cases of people inventing things all at the same time. But generally, there's a good reason for that. It's because someone had put down a challenge.

He told BBC News: "In 1608, no one had presented a challenge - there's no perception of a challenge. It doesn't make any sense. Three people did not invent the telescope in the space of two weeks."

More recently, other historians have suggested the telescope was first invented in Italy.

Mr Pelling got involved in the area when he came across a reference on the internet to a research paper published in 1959 by a Spanish optometrist and amateur historian by the name of Simon de Guilleuma.

De Guilleuma investigated a reference in a book published in 1609 by the Italian Girolamo Sirtori.

In the book, Sirtori describes a meeting with an aged spectacle maker called Juan Roget in Gerona who he described as the real inventor of the telescope.

Death register

Telescope historians have considered Roget - who hailed from Burgundy in France - too marginal to pursue. But de Guilleuma discovered a reference to the death of his wife in an official register.

He also found official listings for many of Roget's relatives in Barcelona, many of whom were also spectacle-makers. They matched the descriptions detailed by Sirtori, and existed in exactly the places and dates he described.

De Guilleuma did not stop there; he looked for "ulleras" - a Catalan word originally meaning eyeglass, but later used for telescope - in inventories of goods from contemporary deaths in Barcelona.

The earliest was from 10 April 1593 when a Don Pedro de Carolona passed down "a long eyeglass decorated with brass" to his wife.

However, Mr Pelling accepts in his article that this item could have referred to a magnifying lens with a long handle.

But he says a subsequent reference to an "eyeglass/telescope for long sight" from 1608 sounds like a Roget telescope.

Later improvement

According to Mr Pelling, Roget - and his customers - may simply have failed to see the potential for the invention.

"It's a bit like golf courses. The people who make golf courses often go bust. It's the person who buys the course who makes money," said Mr Pelling.

He said in his article in History Today: "Even at the time, I think it was clear that all the Dutch claimants were lying, misleading, misremembering and concealing to various degrees."

Mr Pelling said he had been in contact with de Guilleuma's family and now hoped to be able to view other, unpublished research left by the historian after he died.

The Tuscan astronomer Galileo Galilei would greatly improve on the Dutch designs.

These refracting telescopes used lenses to form an image. In 1616, Galileo's compatriot Nicolo Zucchi developed the first reflecting telescope - which used an arrangement of mirrors to create an image.

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