To Infinity and Beyond – A History of technology which enabled us to look beyond the skies (Revised Edition)

Telescope is a simple device which makes far away things appear closer. It gives the observers a new perspective about the universe by enabling them to look deep into the skies and unveil the secrets of the cosmos. Through this device, Galileo argued that Ptolemy’s geocentric model for the universe was wrong and that Copernicus was right about heliocentrism. Over the centuries telescope has went under enormous transformations and has helped in the development of advanced sciences.

Before the telescope, a device known as ‘spyglass’ was used to magnify distant objects on Earth. The telescope became possible with the sophistication of glass making and lens grinding technique. The earliest known version of the telescope appeared in the year 1608 when a Dutch eyeglass maker, named Hans Lippershey, applied for a patent on a device called Kijker (looker), which was capable of magnifying an image up to three times. It consisted of two parallel pieces of the lens (a concave eyepiece and a convex objective lens) aligned along the same horizontal line [3][5].

Although Galileo was not the first to build the telescope, he improved it by using a systematic technique of changing one factor at a time and recording the data. The device that he built is known as a crude refracting telescope [1].

The earliest known sketch of a telescope[1].

Optical path of Galileo’s telescope[1].

The initial version of Galileo’s telescope could only magnify to 8x power. Soon he was able to refine it to 20x magnification. He experimented with the device and built hundreds of telescopes. He figured out that greater the distance between the lenses, the closer the distant object will appear. But, reduce the distance, and objects will appear clearer. Also, as Galileo’s telescopes magnified an object, they narrowed their concentration on smaller and smaller sections and suffered from chromatic and spherical aberration. To solve this problem, he put a large lens in the telescope and covered it with thick paper so that light could only pass through the central part of the curved lens. Soon he was able to refine the magnification about 30 times [1].

Galileo’s telescope with 1330 mm focal length and a 26 mm aperture. It’s magnification power is 14x[1].

Galileo used his telescope to study the skies systematically by observing a small part of the sky for a longer period. He recorded his observations in his book Sidereus Nuncius. He mapped the surface of the moon, and the diffused arch of light across the sky – the Milky Way. He discovered sunspots, four of Jupiter’s moon, and Saturn’s rings [2].

One of Galileo’s drawings of thmoon showing craters, mountains, and terminator for lunar day and night[1].

After Galileo, Johannes Kepler did a detailed study of telescopic optics and designed an apparatus which consisted of two convex lenses – Keplerian telescope. Kepler’s telescope allowed a much wider vision field than Gallio’s telescopes and had better magnification power but produced an inverted image and needed a high focal length [6].

Keplerian astronomical refracting telescope built by Johannes Hevelius. Its focal length is 46 m (150 ft)[6].

By the end of the 18th century and with the refinement of glass making techniques the quality of the device was improved. With the invention of the achromatic refracting lens, scientists were able to minimize chromatic and spherical aberration, and overcome the need for long focal lengths [5].

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[1]      “Galileo and the Telescope.” [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 19-Oct-2018].

[2]      “Telescope: Galileo’s Refractor.” [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 19-Oct-2018].

[3]      “Who Invented the Telescope?” [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 19-Oct-2018].

[4]      “A Brief History of The Telescope: From 1608 to Gamma-Rays.” [Online]. Available:  [Accessed: 19-Oct-2018].

[5]      Reflecting Telescope Optics I: Basic Design Theory and its Historical … – Raymond N. Wilson – Google Books.

[6]      “Johannes Kepler’s Invention – The Keplerian Telescope.” [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 19-Oct-2018].

[7]        NASA. “Telescope History.” [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 19-Oct-2018].

Cardwell, “Galileo” (Father of the Scientific Method)

Galileo Galilei, a polymath, the father of modern science, and the father of observational astronomy, transformed the course of scientific development and technology. His scientific methods were based on a belief that the laws of nature have an underlying mathematical nature, but their simplicity is hidden from our casual observations behind the complexities caused by local conditions and environment.


Portrait of Galileo Galilei (1636) by Justus Sustermans (Public Domain)

Galileo pointed out the correct nature and use of machines. For ages, people believed in discovering the mechanism of a self-contained perpetual motion machine like nature. Galileo pointed out that the purpose of a machine is not to outwit the laws of nature but to take their advantage. To use the power made available by nature for man’s own purpose and make his work easy.

Galileo quantified the concepts of work, power, and energy. He established the science behind the mechanics of machines. Galileo changed the norm from qualitative to quantitative. For example, people already knew from experience that the force needed to move of a freely suspended body is bigger than the force needed to maintain it’s equilibrium. But, Galileo was the one to indicate that this inequality in nature exists because of the external factors like friction between gears, bearings, and pulleys. If we eliminate these external factors, it will be evident that both of the forces will have equal value. Galileo formulated this and gave the principle of inertia, i.e. the body will continue to be in motion unless some external resistive force work against to stop it.


Galileo also framed the science of strength of materials. He applied his principle of the lever to determine a general expression for the strength of a load carrying beam. Even though he forgot to account for the elasticity of beam material, he initiated a scientific revolution in the fields of technological methods, material strengths, and theory of structures. Galileo’s ideas were worked out to determine the work capacity of machines like water wheel and steam engines. He laid down the foundations of the science behind the technology.

“The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages”~by Jean Gimpel | Chapter 1 Summary

During the Middle Ages, there was a revolution in the use of machines in Europe. Their applications in industries were expanded. This expansion of technology was one of the main factors which led to the dominance of the Western hemisphere over the rest of the world. Most common was the Mill, which converted the force generated from moving water or winds into work for grinding corn, crushing olives, fulling cloth, making paper, etc. These groups of machines, especially the corn mills, also served at a local meeting place for people.

By the twelfth century, during the Cistercian order, waterpower became a major economy in Europe. The technology became far more mechanized and was being used almost everywhere. Cistercian Monasteries thousands of miles away in lands like Portugal, Sweden, Hungary, and Scotland were using the similar concepts for water-powered systems with a universally similar concept for the monasteries themselves. Factories were set up in a region on the basis of availability of raw materials. Some major operations which utilized water power were crushing wheat, sieving flour, fulling cloth, tanning, cleaning, and activating bellows to generate flames for heating Vats to make beer.

The medieval society was very enthusiastic about mechanization and applications of technology. Due to the availability of slaves and irregular flow of streams, in the Mediterranean countries, the use of water mills was restricted in antiquity. Romans sometimes tried to meet with this problem by building aqueducts to bring water to the mills, but the cost of the setup was very high. Nevertheless, the policy of mechanization that the Cistercians followed in the middle ages was way advanced.

Thanks to the Domesday Book, which contains a brief record of the extent, value, ownership, and liabilities of land in England, we have a clear picture of English waterpower system in the latter half of the eleventh century. According to the records, there were 5624 watermills across English countries. Each watermill supplied to an average of 50 households. One of the major reasons to build this kind of mill system was to bring in rent.


In the thirteenth century, fulling mills brought in substantial profits such that many lords of the manor not only built new fulling mills but they also converted corn mills into fulling mills. This event is described as the industrial revolution of the thirteenth century and is described as “a revolution which brought poverty and discontent to certain old centres of industry but wealth, opportunity, and prosperity to the country as a whole.”

Medieval engineers didn’t limit themselves to harness energy from fast flowing rivers, they went ahead to explore the seas and established tidal mills. This was the medieval urge to discover new sources of energy.


In the twelfth century, medieval engineers also adapted the concepts from the water-powered mill to harness energy from the wind power. They adapted this technology successfully and soon water wheels driven by hydraulic power were replaced by sails driven by the power of the wind.


The industrial revolution of medieval Europe was established to explore and export its technological innovations. The engineers of the classical world were familiar with the works of these technical types of machinery but applied it to make toys and gadgets. The introduction of the cam and gear technology into the medieval world was an important contribution to the industrialization of the western hemisphere.   


There are many aspects of our life that we take for granted, especially things that are pre-existing or seem everlasting. We fail to recognize that everything that surrounds us has a  history. Everything from church bells to Carolina rice has a past which involves a long process of adjustment during which the invention is improved and modified to fit the needs of the users. In this adjustment process, adoptions are not only made to produce the new product (technique) but also to produce at a low cost. In this article, David E. Nye raises a series of questions which people quite often overlook while considering the evolution and development of a technology over a period of time like why the thing was developed the way it did? How were the technology and its manufacturing process effected due to social and political needs? And more importantly, how did people come up with the idea of this new technology? Nye gives the example of Black Rice by Judith A. Carney which clearly demonstrates how the planters imported a species of rice from West Africa and slaves who had the technical knowledge of cultivating that crop to Carolina estuaries of North America. He argues that the knowledge, techniques, and tools to develop a technology come from somewhere.

Here is a link to a quick review of the book Black Rice by Judith A. Carney:

The definition of technology is not limited to big machines like steam engines, aeroplanes, automobiles, and computers, but also includes houses, landscape, roads, agriculture, city, work-space, and energy systems which are just a few examples of a long list. Nye talks about the community of a new set of researchers which emerged called the SHOT (Society for the History of Technology) which focused on the history of objects in isolation, the inventors, laboratory processes, and the state of knowledge at that particular time. He calls these people internalists as they write from the point of view of an insider who looks over the inventor’s shoulders. Internalists found out that public demand and individual desire are are not something which drives an invention to come into existence. Money and talent can speed up the process, but they cannot always result in a serviceable invention. Therefore it is important to know when a device became practically possible then to know when it was invented. Internalists establish a chronology of the practicality of the product development and the product itself. During the process of developing some feasible inventions are abandoned as unprofitable because they don’t suit the user’s specific needs.

Anthony F. C. Wallace states that we shall view technology as a social product and shall not concentrate our attention on the claims of individual inventors because the concept behind the development and use of the technology involved a group of people that contributed to the basic idea behind the technology before success is achieved to make the technology possible.

To explain why a technology wins the large market and the other fails one needs to consider the technical and cultural factors. This is where the contextualist approach comes in. If we compare steam-, electric-, and gasoline-powered automobiles in the first half of the 20th century, the gasoline car took over the market because of numerous reasons. Countryside lacked electric grids, the batteries were heavy and charged slowly, and the electric car was advertised a woman’s vehicle and described as a safer, quieter, and small ranged. No wonder it lost its attention from the primary customers when men chose to look-over pollution and noise of gasoline car which offered long range, speed, and low cost. Technology is not a stable artifact, it is subject to change and modification based on the political and cultural needs, it is an ever-evolving system. Contextualists view the adaption of every technology as a continual reconstruction of the sociopolitical structure of the world. They try to understand the technologies from the point of view of the people who were present at the time when that technology was being implemented. This implies that machines and technical process are a result of cultural practices, and society in general, and may develop in multiple directions. For example, The computer and the Internet in the United States was not something that came from a foreign society and made an impact; rather, it was a technology which was shaped by its people according to their social context. Like every technology, the internet and computer opened a way for new business, social agenda, and political question. People started to use these devices in different areas for multiple purposes.

Here is a link to an article which talks about the evolution of the internet from a military experiment to a general purpose technology:

Today these technologies are an integrated part of our lives. People around the globe have embedded the computer and the internet in their daily lives that it’s hard to imagine a world without them. To the new generations, these devices seem to be a part of the natural setting of the world. But, it’s not correct to assume that a new technology forces an institution into an involuntary transformation. Rather, an institution incorporates the technology at a point of its ongoing development and evolves around it.

The real question is, “As humans adapt to each new instrument and deceive and learn to reinterpret the world, are they losing touch with other modes of understanding?”

Jose Ortega y Gasset concludes that technology, “leads to the construction of a new nature, a super-nature interposed between man and original, nature. As we surround ourselves with technical objects we form an artificial nature which hides the primordial nature behind it. The man soon tends to believe that all these things are there as nature itself is there.” Technology shapes the perceptions and establishes the horizon of experience. It actually depends on the many contexts in which the people decide to use the technology and how they interpret it. A child born today feels it’s natural to use the electric lights, watch television, ride a car, or talk on mobile. While the child’s grandparents who have experienced these things develop over time will regard these as remarkable innovations.

The relationship between technology and perception is an important subject, especially when we consider the pace of technological change. We cannot ignore the history behind a technology if we are to answer the question how did we arrive in this present, what has been lost in the process, and why the technology was developed the way it is.

Nye concludes that technology matters because humans use technology to shape themselves and the world around them. They have naturalized these changes to suit their needs. Ultimately, it’s peoples decision to chose how technology matters. They can refuse to let a technical innovation define their history as inevitable, or they can accept the world as it is in present.