Digges, Leonard (c.1520–c.1559) and Thomas (c.1545–1595)

Leonard and Thomas Digges were English father and son who pioneered the construction of the telescope (Leonard) and its use (Thomas). Leonard Digges was educated at Oxford and made his name as a mathematician, a surveyor, and an author of several books. He invented a reflecting telescope a century before Isaac Newton, and may also have built a refracting telescope. However, he had little chance to use them. In 1554 he was sentenced to death for his part in a rebellion, and although this was commuted to seizure of his estates, he spent the rest of his life trying to regain his property.


Thomas was only 13 when his father died but had John Dee, a mathematician, as his guardian. In 1571, Thomas published a mathematical work of his own and a posthumous book, Pantometria, by his father in which Leonard's invention of the telescope is discussed. Thomas's observations of the supernova of 1572 (see Tycho's Star) were used by Tycho Brahe in his analysis of this event. Thomas was also the first to promote in Britain the heliocentric view of the solar system due to Copernicus. He was also a pioneer of the enlarged, stellar universe, maintaining that the stars, instead of being fixed to a crystalline sphere, were other suns lying at great distances. However, although he helped pave the way for others, like Huygens, to contemplate the possibility of extrasolar planets and life, he continued to regard the Sun as special and centrally located in the Universe. It has been suggested that Digges may have met Giordano Bruno during the latter's stay in England and derived some of his ideas from the Italian.