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Galilean pocket telescope, ca. 1650



During the mid-17th century, pocket-sized optical instruments such as this one became popular. At their beginning, as in the case of the instrument offered here, they comprised a small Galilean telescope, often made of a bovine metatarsal bone, ivory, and sometimes of wood. It could also function as a long working distance microscope for observing animals etc. at the range of about two meters and above. 

Items of this kind, which were found in archaeological excavations, all date to the 17th century and were found in mid-17th to early 18th century contexts, being all Dutch or English. Many of them are related to ships or other maritime contexts. Five were found in archaeological excavations near the port of Amsterdam. Others were found in the following shipwrecks: the Swedish ship Kronan (sunk: 1676); the British ship HMS Stirling Castle (sunk: 1703); the East India Company ship Hollandia (sunk in England in 1743) and Amsterdam, another East India Company ship (sunk in England in 1749). Another telescope of this kind is reported from the mid-18th century context at Notley Hall (18ST75), St. Mary’s County, Maryland, now kept in the Jefferson Patterson Museum.

All these finds only provide terminus ante quem for the production of these telescopes up to the second half of the 17th century, and may theoretically point to some maritime use. Because they were obviously not used for navigation, they must have been part of the private belongings of naval officers or merchants, used to satisfy their interest in natural history during their journeys. Such curiousity must have been fueled by the emergence of maritime voyages involving some study of natural history, such as the travels of William Dampier (1651-1715) and the popularity of his memoirs and a step in the rise of popular science.

Such items (referred to as "Little Perspectives") are advertised in John Yarwell's trade card of 1683, together with larger telescopes and optical compendia.

These pocket telescopes developed towards the end of the 18th century into optical compendia, combining the telescope with a "fleaglass" microscope, and in more complex forms also with all or part of the following: A livebox microscope, polyprism, compass, sundial, and a screw-barrel microscope. These instruments were intended for amusement, not for true research, but their small size and versatility made them handy for seamen along their journeys. However, the telescope function was useful for short distances (hence functioning as a Long Working Distance {LWD} microscope), or even as a seeing aid for the shortsighted. In the caricatures below, King George III is seen first as the king of Brobdingnag (a fictional land in Jonathan Swift's satirical novel Gulliver's Travels), looking at small Napoleon Bonaparte, and  using his pocket telescope to view a speaker.

Reference: P. Louwman; H. J. Zuidervaart. 2013. A certain instrument for seeing far : four centuries of styling the telescope, Pp. 35 Nos. 15-16, 150. Wassenaar.

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