Like printing, it’s hard to believe that it took so long for someone to think of telescopes-how was it possible that people used spectacles for three hundred years before someone tried using two lenses and a bit of tubing to bring far objects close and create an advantage over an enemy any general would drool over? But despite a few shadowy claims, the earliest certain reference to them is a patent application from 1608, and it’s the four hundredth anniversary of this the exhibition celebrates, even though the earliest telescopes it has are from around the 1670s (no major loss).
The information on the walls (there’s no guidebook) is limited but to-the-point, and gives a good sense of a time when science was a respectable hobby for gentlemen, even if supplying their optical demands was a cut-throat business with trade secrets and patent lawsuits: many telescopes are decorated with fishskin, painted designs and elaborately turned baroque endpieces, though functionality moves in towards the end of the exhibition (rather wisely: telescope tubes in Newton’s time were made of cardboard). It’s amazing to think of the meticulousness of the astronomers of the time, grinding mirrors so meticulously one had his sister on hand to feed him so he could work without pause, with no more self-interested a purpose than cataloguing the stars.
It’s also fascinating to look at the technological dead ends, like telescopes where the end you hold is the bigger one (easier to hold, before new technology allowed telescopes to shrink). The same feeling of looking at different ways the present could have gone goes throughout the museum, an amazing toyshop of technology, some strangely unlike modern equivalents (T.E. Lawrence’s camera, for example, with detachable lenses clearly based on microscope design) and some strangely familiar (a Zeiss microscope from about 1910 with white lettering and black enamel looking, if not utterly modern, at least like it could have rolled out of Jena in the ‘seventies). This is in no way a must-see exhibition, but it’s still interesting, and if you haven’t been to the museum already it makes now a good time to see what you’ve been walking past.