Expanding the Universe, an exhibit in Magill Library at Haverford College, problematizes the conventional wisdom of rapid scientific progress in astronomy after the creation of the telescope. Instead of seeing telescopes as a solution to erroneous ideas about the universe and our position in it, this exhibition illustrates the slow progression of the telescope and of astronomy. When you consider the size of our solar system, let alone the universe, it is understandable that early telescopes would have failed to radically change astronomical ideas. The first telescopes in the early 1600s were capable of only minor discoveries because they lacked magnifying power and were inaccurate in tracking moving astronomical bodies. In observatories, the telescope was overlooked for instruments like quadrants, which were better able to determine and track the position of astronomical objects. The telescope was not the cause of radical change in cosmologies, models which demonstrate organizations of the solar system, because it lacked the sensitivity to prove Earth’s motion. Furthermore, colleges did not advance the telescope until the late 19th century, when it was overdeveloped in its technology but under-employed in astronomical education.

Understanding the telescope’s role in astronomy makes it possible to see why it needed to be a complex and sensitive instrument. The margin of error for detecting motion at great distances, such as those between the Earth and the stars, is so small that even the observatory building’s movement matters. The telescope's role must be contextualized in order to appreciate its astronomical discoveries. Today, the remnants of our moon visits cannot be seen from Earth because even modern telescopes cannot magnify enough to see such detail even at a comparatively short distance in space. Seeing the invention of the telescope as a watershed in which old astronomical ideas were done away with glosses over arduous scientific process. Failing to recognize that scientific discovery and progress require time and dedication creates an overly simplistic view of science that we must avoid if we are to encourage continued exploration of our universe and the questions it raises.

See the Timeline.

This timeline outlines major discoveries in astronomical observation and advancements in the telescope. How did the telescope help redefine astronomy’s purpose from a practical one of navigation and timekeeping to an academic one of discovering and understanding the cosmos?

  • See Timeline

What Could We Observe?

This interactive visualization reveals what we could observe at different points in history. Mouseover the year label or use the slider at the bottom to navigate forward or backwards in time. Hover over the celectial bodies for more details!


I would like to express my deepest gratitude for the continued support and guidance of Magill’s staff. To Sarah Horowitz for her patience and encouragement through hundreds of iterations of this exhibition. To Krista Oldham for her positive attitude and collection findings. To Bruce Bumbarger for his continued interest and for making this exhibition a physical reality. To Mike Zarafonetis for giving the exhibition a digital dimension. To Yutong Li for her hard work in creating the exhibition website. To Terry Snyder for her support through this and many other endeavors. And finally, to the O’Donnell family and supporters of the Joe O’Donnell Student Library Research internship for this amazing opportunity.

--Victor Medina del Toro, Haverford '17

  • Visit Us