Yesterday our old friend Micah Hanks published an article at Ancient Origins in which he attempted to discuss whether ancient people made use of telescopes. He did so without citing any ancient sources to support his claims, nor did he manage to make a strong case for telescopic technology in the ancient world. Instead, he recycled bad sources without understanding their origin and led readers astray.
It is not terribly controversial to assert that ancient people in the Mediterranean and the Near East made use of lenses for magnifying and even setting things on fire. This is rather well documented in the ancient literature, not to mention through discoveries such as the Archaic Greek lenses with a magnification of up to 7X found on Crete in the 1980s. Dozens of older Bronze Age lenses were found and displayed at the archaeological museum in Heraklion. Consequently, the concept of magnifying lenses was not unknown from the Bronze Age onward. It is more controversial to trace this any further back in time. The so-called Nimrud Lens might be a similar object from 3,000 years ago, but many doubt it was meant as a lens instead of a decorative object. These lenses were made from quartz crystals and were shaped by carving the rock.
It is unsurprising that Hanks is not aware of any of the actual lenses known to exist and therefore opens his piece by speculating about whether the ancients manufactured lenses by making their own glass. He does not demonstrate that glass was used to make lenses, but instead he assumes that glass was used to manufacture them in the Bronze Age or deep Antiquity as well, even though glass became mirror material only when methods were discovered to coat the surface of glass with a reflective metal. Lead and gold were the first used, but silver was considered the best. Pliny the Elder (Natural History 33.45) claimed that the technique dated only to the first century CE, though Plautus’ Mostellaria (Act 1, scene 3) mentions presumably glass mirrors 250 years earlier. At any rate, they can’t be traced back much earlier, according to historians, and therefore not to ancient Greece or the Bronze Age.
The glass mirrors of Greco-Roman times were not flat like today’s but rather were convex or concave because they had to be blown as bubbles of glass before being coated with metal. Pliny reported that concave mirrors could be used to enlarge the objects reflected in them “to an immense extent.”
Hanks is unfamiliar with the ancient testimony, so he offers this howler instead: “Pliny the Elder also wrote of Roman Emperor Nero employing some variety of magnifying device, which he used to observe the Colosseum games from a distance.” That would be a neat trick since the Colosseum wasn’t built until decades after Nero’s death. Hanks is incorrectly reporting Pliny’s remarks in Natural History 37.16 (= Isidore of Seville 16.7.1): “When the surface of the smaragdus is flat, it reflects the image of objects in the same manner as a mirror. The Emperor Nero used to view the combats of the gladiators upon a smaragdus.” The word smaragdus was a general term for green stones, including emeralds, and the unclear passage in Pliny has been interpreted to mean that Nero either used the green stone like sunglasses to see the action with less solar glare, or so he could see the action in his hand since he may have been nearsighted and unable to see the arena from a distance. Either way, there is no indication that the image was magnified, though in a concave mirror it is not impossible. Pliny merely stated that the green stones made soothing and pleasing images that rested the eyes. Hanks, in declining to review the original sources, transforms sunglasses into a telescope without quite knowing why or how.
But the most important piece of “evidence” in Hanks’s article is the mirror used in the Pharos lighthouse at Alexandria. I could write an entire article solely on the history of fanciful legends of this mirror, but I need not do so to demonstrate that Hanks has thought but little about it. Indeed, he does not discuss it himself but rather quotes a book from the early 1800s about it! “This mirror is stated by ancient authors to have represented accurately every thing which was transacted throughout all Egypt, both on water and on land.” I regret to report that, to the best of my knowledge, this is actually a medieval Arab-Islamic legend, possibly derived from the fact that the concave mirror that reflected the flame atop the lighthouse reflected enough of the world around it to make visible the surroundings for miles, or else from the genuine ancient claim that the mirror reflected enough light to be seen over vast distances. Indeed, Hanks’s source cites Abulfeda, a fourteenth century Kurdish historian, as his source. This story was prevalent in Arabic literature, and it inspired the even more fabulous legend of Surid’s antediluvian mirror: “He built a mirror of a compound substance in which he saw the climates of the world with their inhabited parts and deserted parts and everything that happened in them. This mirror was placed in a copper lighthouse in the middle of the city of Amsūs” (Akhbar al-zaman 2.2, my trans.). Here “climates” referred to the different regions of the Earth by latitude. Arab-Islamic myth had many more such ancient magic mirrors in the legendary cities of imaginary Egypt, inspired by the Pharos.
It is possible that there is an ancient reference to a story like this that I am unaware of, but I can find no author who refers to or cites one specifically, and I could find none.
Just to show Hanks’s lack of care: He cites his source to an 1860 book on inventions by John Timbs, but it plagiarized much of its text through uncomfortably close paraphrase. The most likely source is the 1823 Percy Anecdotes, which contains much of the exact wording. This, in turn, is a close cousin of a still earlier essay on the “instruments of the antients” in the Philosophical Magazine in 1803, which the 1860 text cites obliquely via a follow-up article that r an in the same magazine two years later. Both versions are quoted from a French author, Father Abat, in his 1763 Amusmens Philosophiques, which cites only “several authors,” and that text is, according to the sources, in turn inspired by the work of the German philosopher Christian August Crusius! And behind all of that is the origin point: Athanasius Kircher’s 1646 book Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae (10.1.1), which wasn’t citing ancient authors but Muslim ones, though to be fair, he didn’t make that clear, merely citing “historians,” by which he usually meant the Arab history writers of the Middle Ages. Of interest is the fact that the Percy author, Thomas Byerley misunderstood reference to “several authors” as being “ancient” authors, when they were in fact medieval. The story appears in Benjamin of Tudela and a few other medieval Western writers, but according to Eileen Adair Reeves it originates in Arab myth, probably in the ninth or tenth centuries. There is a similar confusion arising from the works of Thomas Maurice, who in the late 1700s asserted that Strabo had described a mirror for reflecting the sun atop the temple at Heliopolis, something I can’t find in his Geography. Later authors copied Maurice and misunderstood him, turning the story into “Strabo’s” testimony of the magical mirror atop the Pharos.
You will forgive me then for laughing at Hanks for not taking the few minutes to look this material up before opining from a medieval myth that “… the notion that such ‘high technology’ might have been implemented in some parts of the ancient world, at least on a small scale, really isn’t that farfetched.”
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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