Alumni Profile • Marvin Bolt '84
Hearing bells, finding treasures

Marvin BoltThanks to his Calvin liberal arts education, Marvin Bolt '84 said, a bell went off in his head. That bell led him to the discovery of two of the world's oldest telescopes-and may soon lead to more.

In October 2006, Bolt, a historian of astronomy at Chicago's Adler Planetarium, and a German colleague, Michael Korey, were in Berlin to examine a telescope made in 1617, one of eight then known to pre-date 1650. Oddly, the telescope is housed in that city's decorative arts museum, because it had been made for and contained in a kunstschrank, a finely crafted cabinet typically built for noble families of the 17th century in which they displayed objects of their learning and knowledge-including scientific instruments.

Bolt saw a portrait of the elaborate cabinet and, in a separate room, the telescope it contained. He walked back and forth between the rooms, between the telescope and the cabinet portrait. That's when the bell went off: Shouldn't there be other kunstschranks in other decorative arts museums around Europe, places where science historians hadn't thought to look for telescopes and where arts curators hadn't recognized the telescopes' value?

"In hindsight it looks painfully obvious," Bolt said. "But nobody had connected the scientific and cultural dots."

A couple of nights later, Bolt's colleague, while visiting the opera, saw a notice that Dresden's decorative arts museum had a kunstschrank. A call to the Dresden museum revealed that the cabinet originally contained something listed as a "perspective glass," but that it was in such poor condition it was in storage. The curator agreed to let Bolt and Korey have a look.

Under Bolt's supervision, a conservator carefully took apart the tightly rolled paper tubes covered in tooled leather. Inside, wadded up in balls of paper, were the crudely ground glass lenses that, to Bolt's eye, dated the telescope to the 1620s or 1630s. Confirming his estimate, the kunstschrank is positively dated to 1627.

Less than 12 hours later Bolt was in Kassel at a museum devoted to scientific instruments. He described the characteristics of the telescope he'd just seen in Dresden to the Kassel curator and asked if he had any like it.

"There it was, in the corner of a back shelf-a beautiful one, probably dating around the 1630s, with gold fleur-de-lis tooling on the barrel. The staff knew it was there, but had no idea it was so old and rare."

Thanks to the bell in Bolt's head, the world's collection of telescopes known to date before 1650 had grown from eight to 10 in two days.

In May, Bolt was back in Europe, looking again at the Kassel and Dresden telescopes and two other early telescopes in a private collection. In the future he hopes to search more decorative arts museums for pre-1650 telescopes that may have been carried as far as China.

What Bolt is learning about how these earliest telescopes were made and how they were used will become part of a special exhibit at the Adler Planetarium in 2008 to mark the 400th anniversary of the telescope's invention. The Adler owns the only known early telescope outside Europe.

The exhibit, Bolt hopes, will help visitors to the Adler see what he saw when the bell went off in his head. "I want people to understand that science is not an isolated, analytical specialization," he said. " Kunstschranks show us that telescopes were not only scientific; they were also tools of diplomacy, status symbols and art objects. If we understand that today, too, science has economic, legal, political, artistic and religious dimensions, then we can do science in an integrated, ethical way."