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Through the lens

31 January 2011 by stepheng

old binoculars in museum display

Image courtesy of the Liverpool Daily Post and Echo.

The Victorian child’s brass telescope attracted my eye in the cluttered window of the old junk shop in Mount Pleasant, Liverpool. After some cajoling, it was mine and I was soon down at the river scrutinising the great ships coming and going from the docks.

I still have the little telescope bought all those years ago and continue to be fascinated by the hidden worlds revealed by lenses.

The invention of the telescope helped transform safety at sea as mariners could now see distant shorelines and other vessels not easily visible to the human eye.

The great scientist Galileo greatly improved on the work of three Dutchmen who made the first telescope in 1608. They were Hans Lippershey and Zacharias Janssen – both spectacle makers – and Jacob Metius, an optician.

Early instruments worked on the refraction principal using two lenses to magnify objects. British scientist Isaac Newton constructed the first practical reflecting telescope in 1668, using mirrors to improve image quality.

Binoculars were developed soon after the invention of the telescope when it was realised that mounting two side-by-side had advantages. However, binoculars were slower to be developed but reached their modern form in the 1850s when prisms were introduced to improve efficiency.

There are several examples of binoculars and telescopes on display at Merseyside Maritime Museum. A pair of binoculars dating from about 1860 came from the sailing ship White Star. Pilkington and Wilson’s White Star Line was a major player in the booming emigrant trade to Australia.

An impressive stainless steel telescope was used at the Falmouth Custom House. Dating from the late 19th century, it was in service until 2000 to observe vessels entering harbour.

A set of binoculars (pictured) came from the conning tower of a Second World War German U-boat submarine. These heavy binoculars were clipped on top of a torpedo aiming device during surface patrols. Bearings from the device were automatically transmitted to officers and men inside the submarine. The grey-painted binoculars are fitted with a viewfinder on one eyepiece.

Royal Navy binos in a case stamped HMS Hood date from 1940 -1. This old battle cruiser was sunk by the giant German battleship Bismarck on 24 May 1941 with the loss of 1,400 lives.

A cased brass and wood telescope by Abraham & Co of Liverpool belonged to ‘Hellfire’ Sinclair, a fearsome Black Ball Line captain who came to Liverpool in the 1850s at the beginning of his career.

A new Maritime Tale by Stephen Guy appears every Saturday in the Liverpool Echo. A paperback – Mersey Maritime Tales (£3.99) – is available from the museum, newsagents and bookshops.

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