Technology, World-Changing Inventions

A Brief History of Optical Telescopes

The first example of a working telescope was invented in 1608 by Hans Lippershey of Middleburg, The Netherlands. Through others, his arrangement of mirrors and lenses would go through countless evolutions over time, and come to be one of the most useful scientific inventions in history.

Optical Forerunners

The optical properties of convex and concave transparent objects have been known for thousands of years. The first glass lenses were not created until the late 1200s, when techniques for making glass had advanced enough to produce relatively inexpensive, relatively clear glass. Advancements in grinding and polishing glass also contributed significantly.

Before long, small, wearable sets of lenses were used to correct visions—the first eyeglasses. Methods of correcting both farsightedness and nearsightedness were created. These lenses, along with greatly refined glass mirrors, further set the stage for the telescope.

The First Telescopes

Though two others made their own claims to the device’s invention at the same time, Lippershey, spectacle maker, was the first disseminate designs for the telescope, and the first to apply for a patent.

Lippershey’s original telescope was composed of a single convex lens and a single concave lens in a wooden tube, providing 3X magnification. Soon, the “Dutch perspective glass” was being built by lens and spectacle makers throughout the Netherlands, spreading quickly across Europe and evolving rapidly with new technological advancements.

Sir Isaac Newton is credited with creating the first practical reflector in 1668, using a design that included a small, flat, diagonal mirror that reflected light into an eyepiece mounted on the side of the telescope.


The achromatic telescope was invented by Chester Moore Hall in 1733. Using improved lenses, these telescopes reduced color aberrations and could be far shorter and  more functional than previous designs. Hall did not widely publicize his discovery, and the achromatic telescope did not see wide use until John Dollond began producing them in large quantities in the late 1750s.

The Telescope Gets Larger & More Powerful

In 1789, Sir William Herschel built a giant telescope, forty feet long and with a mirror four feet in diameter. This reflector design, with its huge mirror, was capable of gathering hundreds or thousands of times more light than a refractor telescope.

In 1856, a new process of depositing layers of silver on glass telescope mirrors was discovered by Leon Foucault and Karl August von Steinhall. The silver layer provided much greater reflectivity and longevity that the finish on the speculum mirrors used until that time. It also possible to remove and renew the coating without unwanted modification of the glass substrate.

Using improvements to this technique and other technological advancements, the first large, modern research reflectors were built in the early 20th century. These telescopes were designed specifically for high quality photographic imaging and installed in remote high altitude locations. Examples include the Hale telescope at the Mount Wilson Observatory (built in 1908) and the Mount Wilson Hooker telescope (1917), which measured 100 inches in length.

In 1932, a replacement for the telescopes’ silver lens coating was developed. Using thermal vacuum evaporation, a much longer lasting aluminum coating could be applied. An aluminized lens was used in what was then the world’s largest telescope, the 200 inch Hale reflector at Mount Palomar, in 1948.

Photo credit: El Bibliomata / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

World-Changing Inventions

Brewing Beer: Biotechnology at Its Finest

Did you know that brewing beer is not only an art, but also a science? It’s true! Beer brewing is a form of biotechnology, in that the scientific properties of the base ingredients are carefully manipulated to produce a specific end product.

Like scientists working on a complex chemistry formulation, brewers use four standard ingredients (water, starch [barley, etc.], yeast, and hops) to create the delicious concoction we call beer.


Beer in Ancient History

Beer is among the oldest man-made beverages. Historical evidence suggests that beer brewing dates back to around 6,000 BCE. Various beer “recipes” have been found written in cuneiform (the oldest known form of writing), as has 3,900-year-old Sumerian poetry written in honor of Ninkasi, the patron goddess of brewing.

Early human civilizations including ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia brewed beer extensively. Mesopotamian historical records, found written on clay tablets, suggest that brewing was a highly respected occupation. These ancient brewers used a unique, twice-baked barley bread called bappir that was baked specifically for the brewing process.

In the European Middle Ages, beer became one of the most popular beverages due to the lack of reliable, safe water sources. Because beer was boiled as part of the brewing process, it was guaranteed to be fit for consumption. As it was drunk with every meal (including breakfast), beer also provided a significant portion of daily calories for the lower classes.

Records dating back to 2500 BCE suggest that many different varieties of beer had been developed by that time, some of which were used exclusively in religious ceremonies. Throughout the Middle Ages, brewers’ guilds regularly adopted patron saints—French, Flemish, and Belgian brewers, as well as beer-brewing Christian monks, all shared this practice.

Historical Beer Aficionados

  • Many Egyptian pharaohs made beer part of their everyday diet.
  • Hammurabi’s Code, the ancient law code enacted by the Babylonian king around 2100 BCE, included regulations related to beer and tavern keepers in the kingdom.
  • Sophocles, the great Greek writer of the 5th century BCE, believed that the ideal diet consisted of bread, vegetables, meat, and beer.
  • Charlemagne, the great 8th Century CE king and ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, was a skilled brewer. He considered beer to be an important part of life, and trained many “royal brewers” himself.

The Evolution of Beer: Antiquity to Early Modern Europe

The intentional use of fermentation to produce beer makes brewing perhaps the first-ever application of biological engineering. Because almost any starchy cereal grain will ferment under the right conditions, ancient beers likely varied wildly in their composition and flavor.

The first beers noted in historical records were made with barley, often in large communal vats. These beers were likely thick and almost gruel-like—long reeds were used as straws to drink the liquid from the bottom of the vat and avoid the bitter solids left on top by the fermentation process.

Hops were first used to flavor beer in the 9th century CE. Hopped beer was “perfected”—in that the proper proportion of ingredients was finally discovered—in Bohemia in the 13th century. The use of hops lead to vast improvements in brewing processes and the quality of the finished product. Hops also provided preservative properties that other herbs used for flavoring until that time did not, this allowed beer to be produced in larger batches and sold, traded, and exported.

The oldest commercial brewery still in operation is the Weihenstephan Abbey Brewery in Bavaria, Germany, where beer has been brewed since 1040 CE. Numerous German innovations led to larger kettle sizes for greater production. German purity laws enacted in 1516 (and still used in Germany until 1987) restricted the allowable ingredients in beer to water, barley, and hops—yeast was added after Louis Pasteur’s discovery in 1857.

Thanks to innovations brought about by the Industrial Revolution, the mass production of beer became possible.

Photo credit: i be GINZ / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Historical Science & Technology

Aeolipile: The World’s First Steam Powered Engine

The aeolipile, known more fantastically as the “Hero engine,” is a steam powered, rocket style jet engine, invented by Hero of Alexandria in the 1st century CE. The word “aeolipile” derives from Greek and Latin origins, and translates to “the ball of Aeolus,” referencing the Greek god of air and wind.

What is An Aeolipile?

The aeolipile is a reaction steam turbine, the first of its kind in history. It consists of a spherical or cylindrical vessel (references to both have been found, and recreations have been equally successful using either shape) arranged to rotate on its axis. The vessel has oppositely bent or curved nozzles projecting from either side.

Water is heated in a boiler, which, in most aeolipiles, forms part of the rotating chamber’s base. The boiler is connected to the vessel via a pair of pipes that feed into it, one on each side; these pipes are also the pivot point for the vessel. A simplified version of the aeolipile uses the rotating chamber itself as the boiler, simplifying the construction of the bearings and pivot point.

When the vessel is pressurized with steam, the steam is expelled through the nozzles. As they are pointing in opposite directions, this produces force perpendicularly to the axis of the vessel’s bearing. The opposite thrusts combine to produce rotational movement (torque), spinning the vessel on its axis.

This is the first recorded use of the rocket principle as it relates to Newton’s 2nd and 3rd laws of motion.

Steady state speed is achieved relatively quickly, as aerodynamic drag and frictional forces in the bearings rapidly build up with increasing RPMs and cancel out the accelerating torque.


Prior to Hero of Alexandria’s lifetime, the Roman author Vitruvius (c. 80 BCE – c. 15 BCE) also described the aeolipile in his writings, though it is unclear whether or not it is truly the same device that is being referenced. As Hero (c. 10 – 70 CE) provides a more practical description of the aeolipile, including instructions for how to build one, he is generally credited as the device’s inventor.

Practical or Demonstrative Use?

There is no record of ancient aeolipiles being used for practical purposes. Indeed, the device’s design calls into question whether any practical use could be found for it. The aeolipile is most often depicted as a standalone device, and, like many other devices described in Hero’s Pneumatica, was likely intended as a “temple wonder”—that is, a device intended to perform only as demonstration. However, the aeolipile did pave the way for the many useful steam-powered devices that would follow.

See Also

For more info, and to view photos of a replica aeolipile in action, visit

Important People, Important Discoveries, The Science of Film, Music & Art

Louis Le Prince: Forgotten Father of the Motion Picture

Origins of Le Prince

Born 28 August 1841 in Metz, France, Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince is the long-forgotten father of the motion picture. With single-lens cameras of his own invention, Le Prince was the first person to shoot moving pictures on paper film.

His first two moving picture sequences, Roundhay Garden Scene and Leeds Bridge, were filmed in October 1888 in Leeds, West Yorkshire, England. Le Prince exhibited his films at the Whitley Foundry in Hunslet, Leeds, but they were not shown or distributed to the general public.

Though these brief films predate the work of competing inventors, including Thomas Edison, by several years, Le Prince’s place in the history of cinema is largely forgotten. Also in 1888, Le Prince was granted an American dual-patent for his 16-lens device that operated as both a motion picture camera and a projector; a patent for his single-lens camera (known only as the MkI) was refused in the United States due to an interfering patent. Of consequence to Le Prince’s story, Edison’s application for the same patent was not refused when he applied for it just a few years later.

In late 1890, Le Prince was planning a public demonstration of his films in the United States. However, on 16 September of that year, boarded a train from Dijon, France, to Paris. When the train arrived, his friends and family discovered that Le Prince was not on board. His body and luggage were never found, and his mysterious disappearance remains unsolved to this day.

Patent War Assassination Theory

Several theories on Le Prince’s disappearance exist. Perhaps the most commonly agreed-upon of these is that he was assassinated by an unknown person on persons, on orders from Edison. At the time of his disappearance, he was engaged in a “patent war” with Edison regarding the invention of the moving picture camera. Le Prince’s widow and oldest son Adolphe suspected foul play, though no concrete evidence has yet been discovered.

Shortly after Le Prince vanished, Edison tried to take credit for the invention. In 1898, Adolphe Le Prince appeared in a court case brought against Edison by the American Mutoscope Company. Adolphe, who had assisted his father in many of his experiments as the MkI and subsequent MkII cameras were being developed, appeared as a witness for the defense—American Mutoscope hoped to discredit Edison’s claim to be the first and sole inventor the moving picture camera, which would then have entitle him to royalties for the use of the process.

Though Adolphe was not allowed to present his father’s cameras as evidence, and so re-establish Louis Le Prince’s prior claim as the inventor, it was hoped that citing the elder Le Prince’s achievements would gain him the posthumous recognition he deserved.

Ultimately, the court found in favor of Edison. A year later, the ruling was overturned. Two years later, Adolphe Le Prince was found dead while duck shooting on Fire Island near New York.

Louis Le Prince was officially declared dead in 1897. In 2003, during research in Paris police archives, an 1890 photograph of a drowning victim resembling Le Prince was discovered.


Paper Making Machines: A Brief History & How They Work

The first machine for making continuous sheets of paper was invented by Louis-Nicholas Robert in France in 1798. Robert’s machine became known as the Fourdrinier Machine, named after the Fourdrinier Brothers who financed its invention. Most modern paper making machines are derived from the original Fourdrinier model.

Prior to the invention of paper machines, individual sheets of paper were made by either pouring wood pulp slurry into a sheet mold (a type of fabric sieve) or by dipping the sheet mold into a vat of slurry. After being pressed to remove excess water, each paper sheet would be hung over a rope or wooden rod to air dry.

Fourdrinier Machines—and most, if not all, paper making machines based on its design—use a specially woven fabric mesh conveyor belt at the wet end (where the wet wood pulp enters the machine) to create a long, continuous paper web. Originally, this conveyor was made of bronze wire; modern machines use a special plastic fabric.

After the invention of his first paper machine, for which Roberts was granted the French patent in 1799 (the British patent went to John Gamble, an indirectly related player in its invention, in 1801), Roberts and Bryan Donkin created a series of significantly improved versions throughout the first decade of the 19th century.

The first paper machine in the United States was a cylinder mold machine, installed at Gilpin’s Mill in Delaware in 1817. The Fourdrinier Machine was introduced to the US a decade later.

Modern paper machines have four distinct sections. First is the forming section (a.k.a. “the wet end,” as mentioned above), where the wood pulp slurry is turned into a web of paper fiber on the machine’s fabric conveyor belt. Second is the press, where the continuous feed of paper fiber is fed through large rollers which squeeze the water out of the fiber using high pressure. Third is the dryer, where the paper fiber travels a serpentine route through a series of heated cylinders which further remove water content. Last is the calender section, where the now-dried paper is smoothed by heavy steel rollers.

From there, a separate machine cuts the long, continuous paper sheet into individual sheets of the required size.

Because the process of making paper has changed very little in the past 200 years, and because papermaking machines are generally built very robustly, they often remain in service for many decades with only very minor alterations and upgrades.

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Planned future articles on Sandy Historical will expand on some of the concepts mentioned here. Please visit this page again soon for links to further reading.