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A brief history of binoculars

The origin of the first binoculars goes way back in time and will probably remain forever a mystery. And it’s not just any type of mystery, but an enticing one, surrounded by shadows of mad scientists, secrets of physics and astronomy and a lot of passion. It might be so or it might not. What we do know is that, since the discovery of glass, around 3500 BCE, it took about another 5,000 years for it to be shaped into a lens, which was then used for the first telescope. The telescope’s origin is also unknown, however it is unanimously accepted that the binoculars came in as a natural progression from the telescope.


One of the advantages of binoculars, compared to the monocular telescope, is that they offer a three dimensional view, by producing a merged perspective and giving a more realistic depth perception.

Legend has it that the invention of the first pair of modern binoculars is owed to the Middleburg spectacle maker named Hans Lippershey. In the winter of 1608, he discovered that a convex lens and a concave lens can be combined to produce a magnified image of a distant object. This is, practically, the simplified “recipe” for the telescope!

Lippershey offered his telescope to the Netherland’s States General on October 2nd  1608, short after which he was requested to build a version which could be used by both eyes, for military purposes. Lippershey complied with the demand and created three sets of “two eyes”, which weren’t very praised due to their lack of efficacy. It was stated, back at that time, that they had low magnification and very poor image quality. Lippershey requested a patent on his invention but it was refused to him. Consequently, there is serious doubt to whether Lippershey really was the first to attach a convex lens to a concave one. What is certain is that, by early 1609, the infamous “spyglasses”, later on called telescopes, were widely popular in Paris.

The first binoculars certified by history were the so-called Galilean binoculars. The story tells that the Italian physicist Galileo Galilei heard about Lippershey’s invention and set about building a telescope for his personal research. Eventually, he ended up  producing around one hundred, with magnifications from three times up to about thirty times. With his telescopes, Galileo reached unprecedented boundaries. He observed the craters on the Moon, Jupiter’s four largest satellites, and began an astronomical revolution.

These early telescopes consisted of just two lenses, a convex lens at the front, called the objective, and a concave lens at the eye end, called the eyepiece. However they had a backdraw, which turned out to be quite significant. It was a design flaw which granted the lens an extremely narrow field of view, which made it quite difficult to see details in the distance. During the 1820s, Johann Voigtlander managed to repair the flaw; thus, he became the creator of the first proper pair of Galilean binoculars. Apart from that, he added an extra feature – the eye tubes – which were used for focusing the image better.

Until the 1850s, the Galilean binoculars were very popular accessories, used in theatre rooms and social events, often garnished with pearls, silver, gold, bone or colored leather. Even their shape was modified, resembling pretentious glasses. This very simple telescope design, using just two lenses to produce an upright image, is even nowadays used in low magnification “opera glass”  binoculars.

In 1854, a new and innovative type of binoculars was released on the market by the Italian optician Ignazio Porro. The model was named the Porro Prism binoculars. These binoculars were enhanced in the 1980s by specialised manufacturers, such as the german Carl Zeiss. The Porro Prism binoculars were wider and better performing than the Galilean ones, which made the latter become less and less popular.

However, a new generation of binoculars soon began to be developed, starting with the late 1880s. One particular design became the age’s popular accessory, the Roof Prism binoculars. The French manufacturer Achille Victor Emile Daubresse is the creator of these binoculars. He used the Abbe-Koenig prism or the Schmidt-Pechan Prism in his design.

Until the modern age, many other types of binoculars have been created. Nowadays, we have reached boundaries of which Galileo would be completely taken aback, such as night vision monoculars and binoculars, white phosphor technology and so much more. Nevertheless, none of them revolutionised the market as much as the first creations, manufactured by either Lippershey or Galileo Galilei, which still carry an aura of mystery and fiction.

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