Today we take for granted that binoculars are a tool of choice when we go out into the field to investigate birds, butterflies, wildflowers or distant landscapes. But when did binoculars actually hit the scene?
Well it started in the 1600s when the first telescopes were invented. Then, people started putting two telescopes together to gain the advantages of binocular vision. In 1618, Galileo constructed a helmet with two telescopes attached and this very well could have been the start of it all.
The first true binoculars (i.e. not attached to a helmet and all) were more similar to opera glasses. Because of their design, however, the magnification was limited and they had very low field of view.
Eventually the prism was invented. And, while this advancement increased both field of view and magnification, it inverted the image…..nothing like trying to id an upside down bird! In 1854, Ignatio Porro came up with the idea of using multiple prisms and then in the 1890s, Carl Zeiss fine tuned the use of porro prisms which are still used today.
Also in the late 1800s (1870s actually), optical engineers were also experimenting with other types of prisms. The roof prism was invented during this period. This design made for a tougher, more streamlined binocular.
Since the 1800s, there have been great advancements in glass quality and weight as well as lens coatings and other features that have enabled makers to make binoculars lighter. Outside of that though, the basic design has stayed pretty much true to its original form….minus the helmet.