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The History of Binoculars

Ever wondered how binoculars came to be? We step back in time to see who invented them and why. Find out all about binoculars in today’s history lesson.

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What are binoculars?

Binoculars are two telescopes attached side-by-side and aligned to focus in the same direction or an optical instrument with a lens for each eye that is used for viewing distant objects. They are also known as field glasses which provides a magnified view of distant objects. If you’re curious about just how they work, then don’t miss our guide to the science behind them.

Common uses of binoculars

A binocular is a device that comes handy when watching your favorite games while at the rear, watching birds, hunting and lots more. The less expensive a binocular is, the more people purchase them and enjoy the capabilities they have, because this optical instrument lets you see details from a distant location.

When were binoculars invented?

It took about 5,000 years for glass to be able to be shaped into a lens for the first telescope. The scientist, Galileo Galilei was introduced to astronomy using a telescope. He was the first to see the craters on the moon, discover sunspots, the four moons around Jupiter and the rings surrounding Saturn. The telescope dealt with limited magnification as well as a narrow field of focus.

Hans Lippershey, an experienced eyeglass maker from Holland, was not the first to assemble a device like a telescope but he was credited with the invention as he was the first to make the new device widely known.

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Later, Sir Isaac Newton announced that there was a new telescope design whereby a curved mirror was used to receive light and reflect it back to a point of focus instead of glass lenses. This reflector telescope designed by Newton paved way for other telescope concepts to be used to magnify objects.

It was after the first 300 years of telescopes being in existence that binoculars finally evolved. Then it was a binocular telescope that had two small prismatic telescopes fused together. This was when Hans Lippershey sought a 30-year patent that would allow him to have exclusive manufacturing rights of his instruments in 1608 that the official in charge, who had never seen a telescope before, asked him to build a binocular version of it. Lippershey announced the first binocular on December 8th, 1608 and then after it passed inspection, two more (made using optics made from quartz crystals) were created.

The early binoculars were made with glass lenses and Galilean optics. These optics were named after Galilei Galileo for the progress he made over early telescopes. Galilean binoculars had an inverted eyepiece and a curved lens or mirror that received light from the focused object when viewed, and focused the light rays to produce the real image. Though the elements in the binocular gave it the ability to produce a right-side-up image, one of its faults was that it produced a narrow field of vision and had a low magnification.

As you know, a binocular is the conjoining of two telescopes side-by-side and can be treated similar to a telescope. You should know that a binocular makes visual perception easy while presenting a three-dimensional image of the focused object. Check out this post to see how we actually perceive a depth of field.

So who really invented binoculars?

There was speculation about the invention of binoculars in 1608 and 1609, when it was announced. Galilei Galileo was the first man to introduce the telescope. An experienced eyeglass maker from Holland, Hans Lippershey was the first to be credited and acknowledged as having assembled an instrument like the telescope that allows users to use both eyes to view distant objects. He made the invention widely known. When Lippershey gained a 30-year patent that would have given him mutually exclusive rights to his invention, a bureaucrat in charge of approvals requested that he produce a telescope with two eyepiece and optics of quartz. The instrument was completed, and it received approval in 1608. But the patent rights weren’t granted to Lippershey based on the fact that other people were already aware of the invention.

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Some scholars had their doubts as regards the new invention while others had praise for Lippershey. Louise Bell speculated that the new instrument had a power of 3 or 4 times with an objective of an inch-and-one-half or less in diameter. Henry King, another authority on the history of the telescope, agreed with Bell as he said that quartz was more difficult to work with and the so the request for crystal optics was mainly because of the low quality of optical glasses in that period.

During the civil war, a Robert Tolles made available a supply of field glasses which Henry FItz and Alvan Clark each used to produce a binocular. Though in February 1865, the Clark glass was tested, but only one device was completed by the end of the war. History has it that none of these binoculars currently exist.

Then came Ignatio Porro with prisms in binoculars. The modern prism binocular started with his 1854 Italian patent for a prism-erecting system. In the 1860s, monoculars that used the same prism configuration with the modern porro prism binoculars were produced through work he did Paris with Jean Georges Hofmann, who was a German optician.

Other makers of porro-prism optics include the companies Nachet in 1875, Emil Busch in 1865 and Boulanger in 1859. Some manufacturers made prism binoculars that were a combination of low-quality of glasses and optical designs that were unrefined, and their production techniques resulted in a failed venture. It is unknown if any of those binoculars survived.

Ernst Abbe, a German optical designer showcased a prism telescope at the Vienna Trade Fair in 1873. The invention was designed using Porro’s ideas but without the knowledge of the previous work. Abbe wanted to cement the prisms initially, but he put it on hold in order to develop the theoretical basis of the modern microscope. He was associated with Otto Schott, a glassmaker, and Carl Zeiss, an instrument maker and this resulted in quite a series of innovations by the German optical industry.

As history records, in 1894, the first quality binoculars with a modern design were sold and it was a result of the optical designs of Ernst Abbe teamed with the production abilities Carl Zeiss brought to the binocular industry.


Take a look at our guide to binocular maintenance to see how you can prolong the life and maintain the performance of your favorite bird watching tool.

You don’t want to miss our guide to the top spotting scopes for every budget either. You can see it here.

Se’ve also just published an awesome guide to night driving glasses.

Stay tuned for lots more at Stealthy Ninjas over the coming weeks. We’ll be reviewing the top binoculars for various activities in the near future.

Let us know what you think down in the comments!

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