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Did Gilbert White use binoculars? (1 Viewer)

paranoid numanoid

Registered User
Supporter
Scotland
Sounds a daft question I know, but I'm trying to find out when "field glasses" became popular for nature observation, and I haven't quite pinned it down. I know the earliest patent application for a telescope and a binocular was 1608, (Jan Lippershey, state of Zeeland, Galilean type design) and that other designs followed in 1613, 1671, 1700 up to 1787 (mainly Italy) when Selva in Venice described many current designs. Modern prism optics date from Ignatio Porro (1854) but what references are there to early naturalists using them that you know of? I'd be fascinated to hear some, or to pointed to sources I could consult!!
 

paranoid numanoid

Registered User
Supporter
Scotland
Just found that Edmund Selous may have coined the term "Bird Watching" in 1901 (so maybe there's a reference to field glasses in there?) and that Florence Bailey wrote "Birds Through an Opera Glass" in 1889.
 

Mike C

Emeritus President at Burnage Rugby Club
A lot of early naturalists were very proficient with guns (or had assistants who were), so didn’t need binoculars !!
Hence the old phrase "what’s hit is history and what’s missed is mystery"
 

paranoid numanoid

Registered User
Supporter
Scotland
I think some may still have used "optics" for hunting, (just found "Optics for Hunting and Nature Observation". Walter Schwab, 2011), even if these were more telescopic sights than Swarovskis!! I take your point, and of course the two approaches will have overlapped, but I'm talking more about those observing birds than "collecting" them.
 

paranoid numanoid

Registered User
Supporter
Scotland
Found in my notes: Rev J C Atkinson, author of "British Birds Eggs and Nests Popularly Described" (1861) also wrote a "Glossary of the Cleveland Dialect" in 1868, in which he describes watching a White's Thrush in his garden "with excellent field glasses".
PS
This was the man Alfred Newton "fondly hoped" would collect and publish the provincial names of British birds, and who never undertook the task. Charles Swainson was the one who eventually did, (for the English Dialect Society, and the Folklore Society) to the eminent ornithologist's chagrin. Swainson was favoured by J A Harvie-Brown with his Scottish vernacular lists, and published in 1885-6.
 

Farnboro John

Well-known member
A quick Google reveals that Gilbert White was around in the mid 18th century while practical binoculars were not around until at least the middle of the 19th century. In addition he was a country parson so not exactly rich: so the likelihood of him owning a relatively new, expensive, hand-made optical instrument for his hobby is not high. Perhaps that is why he resorted to distinguishing Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers on call/song!

I'd also bet that Rev JC Atkinson was watching a Mistle Thrush with his "excellent field glasses" - perhaps he really needed an "excellent field guide".

John
 

paranoid numanoid

Registered User
Supporter
Scotland
Yes White was probably born a bit early for even primitive bins ... but didn't he also refer to leg colour separating the willow-chiffs? Of course he would have been brought specimens of all sorts, I'd imagine. There's a reference to him dissecting a nightjar I'm sure.
 

paranoid numanoid

Registered User
Supporter
Scotland
A quick Google reveals that Gilbert White was around in the mid 18th century while practical binoculars were not around until at least the middle of the 19th century. In addition he was a country parson so not exactly rich: so the likelihood of him owning a relatively new, expensive, hand-made optical instrument for his hobby is not high. Perhaps that is why he resorted to distinguishing Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers on call/song!

I'd also bet that Rev JC Atkinson was watching a Mistle Thrush with his "excellent field glasses" - perhaps he really needed an "excellent field guide".

John
Haha yes, I always thought it would have been a juv!
 

Torchepot

Well-known member
United Kingdom
As soon as something gives one person an advantage of any sort over another you can be sure the military will be on to it. Looks like the early field glasses were pretty poor by modern standards - mostly about 3x mag. Some early examples in the link below.

Years ago I tried to find any reference to binoculars in either of A R Wallace‘s travel diaries but couldn’t - plenty of references to what he saw down the barrel of his gun though. AFAIK Darwin didn’t use field glasses either?

 

cheshirebirder

Well-known member
As soon as something gives one person an advantage of any sort over another you can be sure the military will be on to it. Looks like the early field glasses were pretty poor by modern standards - mostly about 3x mag. Some early examples in the link below.

Years ago I tried to find any reference to binoculars in either of A R Wallace‘s travel diaries but couldn’t - plenty of references to what he saw down the barrel of his gun though. AFAIK Darwin didn’t use field glasses either?

Quick google on antique sites doesn’t seem to throw up any binoculars pre 1900 but terrestrial telescopes have been around longer eg napoleonic times at least.
 

Torchepot

Well-known member
United Kingdom
Sounds a daft question I know, but I'm trying to find out when "field glasses" became popular for nature observation, and I haven't quite pinned it down. I know the earliest patent application for a telescope and a binocular was 1608, (Jan Lippershey, state of Zeeland, Galilean type design) and that other designs followed in 1613, 1671, 1700 up to 1787 (mainly Italy) when Selva in Venice described many current designs. Modern prism optics date from Ignatio Porro (1854) but what references are there to early naturalists using them that you know of? I'd be fascinated to hear some, or to pointed to sources I could consult!!
I’ve often wondered if and when optics were first used by naturalists and I assumed that the old fashioned draw tube telescopes were familiar to any who travelled on long sea journeys from the 1800s onwards. It seems though that the type of telescope used by naval officers would have been too long and unwieldy for effective field use. The draw tube scopes which were still in common use for sea watching when I started birding in the early 1970s were more probably originally “gentlemens” scopes or made for army officers.
I stumbled on this website which has a huge amount of information about the design, origins and history of draw tube scopes. There’s a lot of fascinating (at least to me) information to be found here.
One thing I was surprised to find was that one of these beautiful scopes sold secondhand for 14 shillings (70p) in the 1930s!


The link takes you to the naval use pages but scrolling through the archive brings up lots of other goodies. There were a lot of pocket scope designs which were truly portable and seemingly popular with deer stalkers and the army.

We’re no closer to knowing if any naturalists used them for nature observation but they seem to have been produced widely from around 1830 onwards. Some designs had variable magnification and quite sophisticated lens design.


Here’s a link to the “gentleman’s use” pages.
 

pianoman

duck and diver, bobolink and weaver
Numanoid, it's a really good question and one I haven't discussed up to now. Even poor binoculars must have been revolutionary for wildlife study.

At one stage I had a pair of German WW1 6x40 Galilean binoculars. No prisms but concave eyepieces. The contrast and FOV wasn't great but definitely a lot better than nothing; the simple design also meant they were quite robust and light, also the eye relief was good compared to older prism bins.

It's looking like 1890s was the time when field glasses really became useful for birdwatching. Though prism were already around, I imagine that Galilean was a cheaper lighter choice in practice.
 

MJB

Well-known member
One thing I was surprised to find was that one of these beautiful scopes sold secondhand for 14 shillings (70p) in the 1930s!
14 shillings (70p) in the 1930s is equivalent to £43.50 today when the average UK weekly wage then was £1.55 to £1.95 during that decade...
MJB
 

Buff1ehead

Member
Sorry to come on this late. The American naturalist, Henry David Thoreau, purchased a brass telescope for birding in 1854. A photo of the telescope can be found on the Concord Museum website Thoreau’s Spyglass | Concord Museum

Thoreau's library contained a copy of The Natural History of Selbourne, and White's influence can be found throughout Thoreau's writing, especially in terms of phenology.
 

paranoid numanoid

Registered User
Supporter
Scotland
Thank you for this fascinating reply; I've been dipping into Walden for some time..... (not literally!) will have a look at your link. I will also look up "phenology" as I first thought "phrenology" and thought better of it, think of all those quartered heads and skulls!!
 

Buff1ehead

Member
Sorry about that. Gilbert White is considered the father of phenology, and Thoreau's phenological studies, as recorded in his journals, have been so accurate that they've recently been used to document climate change. Here's a link to a book on the subject: Walden Warming
 

paranoid numanoid

Registered User
Supporter
Scotland
Thank you, I'm on that now.
"Wryneck pipes".
I didn't realise the reputation of Gilbert White (or of Thoreau) went that far.
I'm taken aback by the 1854 date of Thoreau's "spyglasses". I'm really wondering if Charles Swainson used them around Charlton or Harrow to watch jays or shrikes, as he penned his "Provincial Names and Folk-Lore of British Birds" in 1885-86.
We may never know.
I think he may well have viewed the Thames from the steeple of St Lukes!!
And the early Blackheath rugby football matches from his window overlooking the Rectory Field!
 
ZEISS. Discover the fascinating world of birds, and win a birding trip to Columbia
ZEISS. Discover the fascinating world of birds, and win a birding trip to Columbia
ZEISS. Discover the fascinating world of birds, and win a birding trip to Columbia

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