Refracting telescope

A refracting telescope (also called a refractor) is a type of optical telescope that uses a lens as its objective to form an image (also referred to a dioptric telescope). The refracting telescope design was originally used in spy glasses and astronomical telescopes but is also used for long focus camera lenses. Although large refracting telescopes were very popular in the second half of the 19th century, for most research purposes the refracting telescope has been superseded by the reflecting telescope which allows larger apertures. A refractor's magnification is calculated by dividing the focal length of the objective lens by that of the eyepiece.[1]

Refracting telescopes typically have a lens at the front, then a long tube, then a eyepiece or instrumentation at the rear, where the telescope view comes to focus. Originally, telescopes had an objective of one element, but a century later two and even three element lenses were made.

Refracting telescope is a technology that has often been applied to other optical devices such as binoculars and zoom lenses/telephoto lens/Long-focus lens.


Refractors were the earliest type of optical telescope. The first record of a refracting telescope appeared in the Netherlands about 1608, when a spectacle maker from Middelburg named Hans Lippershey unsuccessfully tried to patent one.[2] News of the patent spread fast and Galileo Galilei, happening to be in Venice in the month of May 1609, heard of the invention, constructed a version of his own, and applied it to making astronomical discoveries.[3]

Refracting telescope designs

All refracting telescopes use the same principles. The combination of an objective lens 1 and some type of eyepiece 2 is used to gather more light than the human eye is able to collect on its own, focus it 5, and present the viewer with a brighter, clearer, and magnified virtual image 6.

The objective in a refracting telescope refracts or bends light. This refraction causes parallel light rays to converge at a focal point; while those not parallel converge upon a focal plane. The telescope converts a bundle of parallel rays to make an angle α, with the optical axis to a second parallel bundle with angle β. The ratio β/α is called the angular magnification. It equals the ratio between the retinal image sizes obtained with and without the telescope.[4]

Refracting telescopes can come in many different configurations to correct for image orientation and types of aberration. Because the image was formed by the bending of light, or refraction, these telescopes are called refracting telescopes or refractors.

It has been suggested that the Visby lenses, which have an aspheric shape were used as part of a pre-historical telescope.[5]

Galilean telescope

The design Galileo Galilei used in 1609 is commonly called a Galilean telescope. It used a convergent (plano-convex) objective lens and a divergent (plano-concave) eyepiece lens (Galileo, 1610).[7] A Galilean telescope, because the design has no intermediary focus, results in a non-inverted and upright image.

Galileo's best telescope magnified objects about 30 times. Because of flaws in its design, such as the shape of the lens and the narrow field of view, the images were blurry and distorted. Despite these flaws, the telescope was still good enough for Galileo to explore the sky. The Galilean telescope could view the phases of Venus, and was able to see craters on the Moon and four moons orbiting Jupiter.

Parallel rays of light from a distant object (y) would be brought to a focus in the focal plane of the objective lens (F′ L1 / y′). The (diverging) eyepiece (L2) lens intercepts these rays and renders them parallel once more. Non-parallel rays of light from the object traveling at an angle α1 to the optical axis travel at a larger angle (α2 > α1) after they passed through the eyepiece. This leads to an increase in the apparent angular size and is responsible for the perceived magnification.

The final image (y″) is a virtual image, located at infinity and is the same way up as the object.

Keplerian telescope

The Keplerian telescope, invented by Johannes Kepler in 1611, is an improvement on Galileo's design.[9] It uses a convex lens as the eyepiece instead of Galileo's concave one. The advantage of this arrangement is that the rays of light emerging from the eyepiece are converging. This allows for a much wider field of view and greater eye relief, but the image for the viewer is inverted. Considerably higher magnifications can be reached with this design, but to overcome aberrations the simple objective lens needs to have a very high f-ratio (Johannes Hevelius built one with a 46-metre (150 ft) focal length, and even longer tubeless "aerial telescopes" were constructed). The design also allows for use of a micrometer at the focal plane (to determine the angular size and/or distance between objects observed).

Huygens built an aerial telescope for Royal Society of London with a 19 cm (7.5″) single-element lens.[10]

Achromatic refractors

The next major step in the evolution of refracting telescopes was the invention of the achromatic lens, a lens with multiple elements to helped solve problems with chromatic aberration and allowed shorter focal lengths. It was invented in 1733 by an English barrister named Chester Moore Hall, although it was independently invented and patented by John Dollond around 1758. The design overcame the need for very long focal lengths in refracting telescopes by using an objective made of two pieces of glass with different dispersion, 'crown' and 'flint glass', to reduce chromatic and spherical aberration. Each side of each piece is ground and polished, and then the two pieces are assembled together. Achromatic lenses are corrected to bring two wavelengths (typically red and blue) into focus in the same plane.

Chester More Hall is noted as having made the first twin color corrected lens in 1730.[11]

Dollond achromats were quite popular in the 18th century.[12][13] A major appeal was they could be made shorter.[13] However, problems with glass making meant that the glass objectives were not made more than about four inches in diameter.[13]

In the late 19th Century the Glass maker Guinand developed a way to make larger, higher quality glass blanks greater than four inches.[13] He had also passed this technology to his apprentice Fraunhofer, whom further developed this technology and also developed the Fraunhofer doublet lens design.[13] The breakthrough in glass making techniques lead to the great refractors of the 19th century, that became progressively larger through the decade, eventually reaching over 1 meter by the end of that century before being superseded by silvered-glass reflecting telescopes in astronomy.

Noted lens makers of the 19th century include:[14]

Some famous 19th century doublet refractors are the James Lick telescope (91 cm/36 in) and the Greenwich 28 inch refractor (71 cm). An example of an older refractor is the Shuckburgh telescope (dating to the late 1700s). A famous refractor was the "Trophy Telescope", presented at the 1851 Great Exhibition in London. The era of the 'great refractors' in the 19th century saw large achromatic lenses, culminating with the largest achromatic refractor ever built, the Great Paris Exhibition Telescope of 1900.

In the Royal Observatory, Greenwich an 1838 instrument named the Sheepshanks telescope includes an objective by Cauchoix.[20] The Sheepshanks had a 6.7 inch (17 cm) wide lens, and was the biggest telescope at Greenwich for about twenty years.[21]

An 1840 report from the Observatory noted of the then-new Sheepshanks telescope with the Cauchoix doublet:[22]

In the 1900s a noted optics maker was Zeiss.[23] An example of prime achievements of refractors, over 7 million people have been able to view through the 12-inch Zeiss refractor at Griffith Observatory opening in 1935; this is the most people to have viewed through any telescope.[23]

Achromats were popular in astronomy for making star catalogs, and they required less maintenance than metal mirrors. Some famous discoveries using achromats are the planet Neptune and the Moons of Mars.

The long achromats despite having smaller aperture then the larger reflectors were often favoured for "prestige" observatories. In the late 18th century every few years a larger and longer refractor would debut.

For example, the Nice Observatory debuted with 77-centimetre (30.31 in) refractor, the largest at the time but was surpassed within only a couple years.[24]

Apochromatic refractors

Apochromatic refractors have objectives built with special, extra-low dispersion materials. They are designed to bring three wavelengths (typically red, green, and blue) into focus in the same plane. The residual color error (tertiary spectrum) can be down to an order of magnitude less than that of an achromatic lens. Such telescopes contain elements of fluorite or special, extra-low dispersion (ED) glass in the objective and produce a very crisp image that is virtually free of chromatic aberration.[25] Due to the special materials needed in the fabrication, apochromatic refractors are usually more expensive than telescopes of other types with a comparable aperture.

In the 18th century Dollond, a popular maker of doublet telescopes, also made a triplet, although they were not really as popular as the two element telescopes.[13]

One of the famous triplet objectives, is the Cooke triplet, noted for being able to correct the Seidal aberrations.[26] It is recognized as one of the most important objective designs in the field of photography.[27][28] The Cooke triplet can correct, with only three elements, for one wavelength, spherical aberration, coma, astigmatism, field curvature, and distortion.[28]

Technical considerations

Refractors suffer from residual chromatic and spherical aberration. This affects shorter focal ratios more than longer ones. A 100 mm (4 in) f/6 achromatic refractor is likely to show considerable color fringing (generally a purple halo around bright objects). A 100 mm (4 in) f/16 has little color fringing.

In very large apertures, there is also a problem of lens sagging, a result of gravity deforming glass. Since a lens can only be held in place by its edge, the center of a large lens sags due to gravity, distorting the images it produces. The largest practical lens size in a refracting telescope is around 1 meter (39 in).[29]

There is a further problem of glass defects, striae or small air bubbles trapped within the glass. In addition, glass is opaque to certain wavelengths, and even visible light is dimmed by reflection and absorption when it crosses the air-glass interfaces and passes through the glass itself. Most of these problems are avoided or diminished in reflecting telescopes, which can be made in far larger apertures and which have all but replaced refractors for astronomical research.

The ISS-WAC on the Voyager 1/2 used a 6 cm (2.36″) lens, launched into space in the late 1970s, an example of the use of refractors in space.[30]

Applications & Achievments

Refracting telescopes were noted for their use in astronomy as well as for terrestrial viewing. Many early discoveries of the Solar System were made with singlet refractors.

The use of refracting telescopic optics are ubiquitous in photography, and are also used in Earth orbit.

One of the really famous applications of refracting telescope, was when Galileo used it for astronomy; he discovered the four largest moons of Jupiter in 1609. Furthermore, early refractors were also used to discover the largest moon of Saturn, Titan, several decades later as well as three more of Saturn's moons.

In the 19th century, refracting telescopes were used for pioneering work on astrophotography and spectroscopy, and the related instrument, the heliometer, was used to calculate the distance to another star for the first time. There modest apertures did not lead to as many discoveries and typically so small in aperture many astronomical objects were simply not observeable until the advent of long-exposure photograph, by which time the reputation and quirks of reflecting telescopes was beginning to exceed those of the refractors. Despite this some discoveries include the Moons of Mars, a fifth Moon of Jupiter, and many double star discoveries including Sirius (the Dog star). Refactors were often used for positional astronomy, besides from the other uses in photography and terrestrial viewing.


The Galilean moons and many other moons of the solar system, were discovered with single-element objectives and aerial telescopes.

Galileo Galilei's discovered the Galilean satellites of Jupiter in 1610 with a refracting telescope.[31]

The planet Saturn's moon, Titan, was discovered on March 25, 1655, by the Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens.[32][33]


In 1861, the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, was fond to have smaller stellar companion using the 18 and half-inch Dearborn refracting telescope.

By the 18th century refractors began to have major competition from reflectors, which could be made quite large and did not normally suffer from the same inherent problem with chromatic aberration. Nevertheless, the astronomical community continued to use doublet refractors of modest aperture in comparison to modern instruments. Noted discoveries include the Moons of Mars and a fifth moon of Jupiter, Amalthea.

Asaph Hall discovered Deimos on 12 August 1877 at about 07:48 UTC and Phobos on 18 August 1877, at the US Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., at about 09:14 GMT (contemporary sources, using the pre-1925 astronomical convention that began the day at noon,[34] give the time of discovery as 11 August 14:40 and 17 August 16:06 Washington mean time respectively).[35][36][37]

The telescope used for the discovery was the 26-inch (66 cm) refractor (telescope with a lens) then located at Foggy Bottom.[38] In 1893 the lens was remounted and put in a new dome, where it remains into the 21st century.[39]

Jupiter's moon Amalthea was discovered on 9 September 1892, by Edward Emerson Barnard using the 36 inch (91 cm) refractor telescope at Lick Observatory.[40][41] It was discovered by direct visual observation with the doublet-lens refractor.[31]

In 1904, one of the discoveries made using Great Refractor of Potsdam (a double telescope with two doublets) was of the interstellar medium.[42] The astronomer Professor Hartmann determined from observations of the binary star Mintaka in Orion, that there was the element calcium in the intervening space.[42]


Planet Pluto was discovered by looking at photographs (i.e. 'plates' in astronomy vernacular) in a blink comparator taken with an refracting telescope, an astrograph with a 3 element 13-inch lens.[43][44]

List of the largest refracting telescopes

Examples of some of the largest achromatic refracting telescopes, over 60 cm (24 in) diameter.

See also

Further reading


  1. "Telescope Calculations". Northern Stars. Retrieved 2013-12-20.
  2. Albert Van Helden, Sven Dupré, Rob van Gent, The Origins of the Telescope, Amsterdam University Press, 2010, pages 3-4, 15
  3. Science, Lauren Cox 2017-12-21T03:30:00Z; Astronomy. "Who Invented the Telescope?". Retrieved 2019-10-26.
  4. Stephen G. Lipson, Ariel Lipson, Henry Lipson, Optical Physics 4th Edition, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-49345-1
  5. Whitehouse, David (5 April 2000). "Did the Vikings make a telescope?". BBC News.
  7. Sidereus Nuncius or The Sidereal Messenger, 1610, Galileo Galilei et al., 1989, pg. 37, The University of Chicago Press, Albert van Helden tr., (History Dept. Rice University, Houston, TX), ISBN 0-226-27903-0.
  8. Hevelius, Johannes (1673). Machina Coelestis. First Part. Auctor.
  9. Tunnacliffe, AH; Hirst JG (1996). Optics. Kent, England. pp. 233–7. ISBN 978-0-900099-15-1.
  10. Paul Schlyter, Largest optical telescopes of the world
  11. Tromp, R. M. (December 2015). "An adjustable electron achromat for cathode lens microscopy". Ultramicroscopy. 159 Pt 3: 497–502. doi:10.1016/j.ultramic.2015.03.001. ISSN 1879-2723. PMID 25825026.
  12. "Dollond Telescope". National Museum of American History. Retrieved 2019-11-19.
  13. English, Neil (2010-09-28). Choosing and Using a Refracting Telescope. Springer Science & Business Media. ISBN 9781441964038.
  14. Lankford, John (2013-03-07). History of Astronomy: An Encyclopedia. Routledge. ISBN 9781136508349.
  15. "Cauchoix, Robert-Aglae". Canvases, Carats and Curiosities. 2015-03-31. Retrieved 2019-10-26.
  16. Ferguson, Kitty (2014-03-20). "The Glassmaker Who Sparked Astrophysics". Nautilus. Retrieved 2019-10-26.
  17. Lequeux, James (2013-03-15). Le Verrier—Magnificent and Detestable Astronomer. Springer Science & Business Media. ISBN 978-1-4614-5565-3.
  18. "1949PA.....57...74K Page 75". Retrieved 2019-11-19.
  19. "Sheepshanks telescope". UK: Royal Museums Greenwich. Retrieved 27 February 2014.
  20. Tombaugh, Clyde W.; Moore, Patrick (2017-09-15). Out of the Darkness: The Planet Pluto. Stackpole Books. ISBN 9780811766647.
  21. Astronomical Observations, Made at the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, ... Clarendon Press. 1840.
  22. The Observatory, "Large Telescopes", Page 248
  23. "Starizona's Guide to CCD Imaging". Retrieved 17 October 2013.
  24. Kidger, Michael J. (2002). Fundamental Optical Design. SPIE Press. ISBN 9780819439154.
  25. Vasiljevic, Darko (2012-12-06). Classical and Evolutionary Algorithms in the Optimization of Optical Systems. Springer Science & Business Media. ISBN 9781461510512.
  26. Vasiljević, Darko (2002), "The Cooke triplet optimizations", in Vasiljević, Darko (ed.), Classical and Evolutionary Algorithms in the Optimization of Optical Systems, Springer US, pp. 187–211, doi:10.1007/978-1-4615-1051-2_13, ISBN 9781461510512
  27. Stan Gibilisco (2002). Physics Demystified. Mcgraw-hill. p. 532. ISBN 978-0-07-138201-4.
  28. "Voyager".
  29. Bakich M. E. (2000). The Cambridge Planetary Handbook. Cambridge University Press. pp. 220–221. ISBN 9780521632805.
  30. "Lifting Titan's Veil" (PDF). Cambridge. p. 4. Archived from the original (PDF) on February 22, 2005.
  31. "Titan". Astronomy Picture of the Day. NASA. Archived from the original on March 27, 2005.
  32. Campbell, W.W. (1918). "The Beginning of the Astronomical Day". Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, Vol. 30, No. 178, P.358. 30 (178): 358. Bibcode:1918PASP...30..358C. doi:10.1086/122784.
  33. "Notes: The Satellites of Mars". The Observatory, Vol. 1, No. 6. 20 September 1877. pp. 181–185. Retrieved 12 September 2006.
  34. Hall, A. (17 October 1877). "Observations of the Satellites of Mars" (Signed 21 September 1877). Astronomische Nachrichten, Vol. 91, No. 2161. pp. 11/12–13/14. Retrieved 12 September 2006.
  35. Morley, T. A.; A Catalogue of Ground-Based Astrometric Observations of the Martian Satellites, 1877-1982, Astronomy and Astrophysics Supplement Series, Vol. 77, No. 2 (February 1989), pp. 209–226 (Table II, p. 220: first observation of Phobos on 1877-08-18.38498)
  36. "Telescope: Naval Observatory 26-inch Refractor". Retrieved 29 October 2018.
  37. "The 26-inch "Great Equatorial" Refractor". United States Naval Observatory. Retrieved 29 October 2018.
  38. Barnard 1892.
  39. Lick Observatory (1894). A Brief Account of the Lick Observatory of the University of California. The University Press. p. 7–.
  40. Kanipe, Jeff (2011-01-27). The Cosmic Connection: How Astronomical Events Impact Life on Earth. Prometheus Books. ISBN 9781591028826.
  41. "The Pluto Telescope". Lowell Observatory. Retrieved 2019-11-19.
  42. "Pluto Discovery Plate". National Air and Space Museum. Retrieved 2019-11-19.
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