In war, seeing is everything, and for more than 400 years militaries the world over have sought out new ways to scope out their enemies. Hans Lippershey, a Dutch spectacle maker, is credited with inventing the telescope (in 1608), but a prominent British science historian presented evidence in 1991 that Leonard Digges, an English mathematician and surveyor, had come up with a reflecting telescope sometime between 1540 and his death in 1559. As England lived in abject fear of a Spanish invasion, Digges’s invention may have been kept under wraps as a military secret, and England crushed Spain’s “Invincible Armada” when it finally arrived in 1588. As for Lippershey’s telescope, the Dutch tried to keep it a secret too, according to the late Archibald Roy, an astronomer at Glasgow University,  correctly envisioning that “a general could overlook the whole field of battle with it.”

  • Washington’s telescope. In his will, George Washington identified this three-draw mahogany and brass spyglass by the London optical instrument maker Henry Pyefinch as one “which constituted part of my equipage during the late War.” (Mount Vernon Ladies' Association)
  • Confederate spyglass. This spyglass, made by the London firm Negretti & Zambra (founded by two Italian immigrants) was used by the Confederate army’s signal corps during the Civil War. (National Museum of American History)
  • M16A1D telescope elbow. This fixed-focus, 3-power instrument with stadia lines (crosshairs) was designed to sight a 105mm howitzer when it was used as a direct fire weapon (the rubber eyepiece is missing); similar models were made for various field artillery pieces. (Heritage Auctions)
  • Billy Mitchell’s flying goggles. These goggles, manufactured by E. B. Meyrowitz, were issued to military aviators as part of their standard flying equipment in World War I; this pair belonged to Brigadier General William “Billy” Mitchell, the commander of the U.S. Army Air Service. (National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution)
  • Splinterproof goggles. H. F. Game, a lieutenant in the Royal Flying Corps, was wearing these goggles, made by the Triplex Safety Glass Company, when he crash-landed while flying with 48 Squadron in World War I; the firm later featured him in its advertising. (Imperial War Museums)
  • Antigas goggles. The British Army issued these goggles to soldiers on the Western Front in 1915, but the goggles were deemed obsolete the following year. (Imperial War Museums)
  • Grant’s field glasses. These binoculars, with cloth-covered barrels and 55mm objective lenses, belonged to Union lieutenant general Ulysses S. Grant, who probably used them during the Civil War; they’re now in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution. (National Museum of American History)
  • Battle of the Little Bighorn field glasses. These French-made binoculars (missing one lens) were reportedly found in 1996 at the site of Custer’s Last Stand in southeastern Montana. (Heritage Auctions)
  • Japanese trench binoculars. This tripod-mounted device, manufactured during World War II by the optical firm Nippon Kogaku (the forerunner of Nikon Corporation), features two periscope tubes that can be folded together or spread apart like scissors. (Imperial War Museums)
  • U.S. Navy “big eyes” bridge binoculars. This naval observation device, which stands some 55 inches tall and measures 36 1/2 inches from eyepieces to objective lenses, has it all: elevation controls, focus adjustments, and a traversing mechanism. (Heritage Auctions)
  • Hap Arnold’s World War I binoculars. Henry “Hap” Arnold used these French binoculars, purchased at Philadelphia’s John Wanamaker department store, when he was a major in the aviation section of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. (Heritage Auctions)
  • Nikko binoculars. These Japanese binoculars were captured during the Battle of Leyte in 1944, just weeks after General Douglas A. MacArthur delivered his “I have returned” message to the Philippine people. (Naval History and Heritage Museum)
  • U.S. Army infrared M3 Sniperscope. First used in combat during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, this night-vision version of the selective-fire M2 carbine gave units the ability to see—and fire at—greenish images of enemy soldiers. (Royal Armouries)
  • No. 2 MKIII rangefinder. British infantry units fighting in the trenches of World War I typically used these range- finders with Vickers machine guns. (Imperial War Museums)
  • Miniature monocular. Britain’s Special Operations Executive developed this matchbox-size telescope for use by its commandos in World War II. (Imperial War Museums)
  • Civil War sniper’s rifle. This rifle was equipped with a 12-power telescopic sight made from cold-drawn steel that provided a 20-foot field of vision at 220 yards. (Heritage Auctions)
  • Pigeon camera. Julius Neubronner, a German apothecary who relied on pigeons to deliver medications to his customers, patented a workable method for using the birds for aerial photography in 1907. In the early years of World War I, the German military strapped time-delayed miniature cameras to homing pigeons for aerial reconnaissance of enemy territory, but the rapid perfection of aviation soon rendered the avian approach obsolete. (International Spy Museum)
  • Truck-mounted night vision binoculars. The Soviet Union began experimenting with night-vision devices in the early years of its entry into World War II; this prototype, installed on a GAZ-AA truck, featured a roof-mounted 250-watt infrared headlamp. (Automotive Archive Fund)


This article appears in the Autumn 2020 issue (Vol. 33, No. 1) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Now See Here

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