Adler Planetarium

Telescope Research: Optics Behind the Iron Curtain

Today’s research led my telescopic twin colleague (Michael Korey, a curator at the Mathematisch-Physikalischer Salon in Dresden, Germany) and I to visit Rolf Riekher in southeast Berlin. Mr. Riekher enjoyed an extraordinary career as an optician. Beginning in the late 1930s, he apprenticed in an optical shop in his hometown of Schwerin in northern Germany. After World War II, he witnessed the dismantling of the Zeiss optical plant in Jena, where the America’s first planetarium projector (installed at Adler in 1930) had been built. Using spare parts and his own Rube Goldberg setup, he built his own polishing and grinding machines, and soon became the leading maker of spectacle lenses in northern Germany from 1946 to 1951. His ingenuity caught the attention of the director of the Optical Institute of the Academy of Sciences in East Berlin. He was invited to work there, and the rest, one can correctly say, is history. 

(Left to Right) Dr. Marvin Bolt, Michael Korey, and Rolf Reikher examine historic documents.

(Left to Right) Dr. Marvin Bolt, Michael Korey, and Rolf Reikher examine historic documents.

Among Riekher’s patents are ones for transitional bifocals, early work on lasers, and highly complex processes for producing aspheric lenses. In his spare time, beginning in 1953, he began to research the history of the telescope. His resulting monograph, "Fernrohre und ihre Meister" (Telescopes and their Makers) appeared in 1957, with a revised and expanded edition in 1990; it is still considered the standard reference on the topic, with an English edition to appear soon (we hope). He wrote this impressive text from “behind” the Iron Curtain despite having only limited access to any information about the West.

Since his retirement in 1987, he has continued to carry out impressive research, including a book-length detailed study of Kepler’s optical works. At the age of 91, Mr. Riekher is still actively engaged in excellent scholarly research on the work of the important early-nineteenth-century German optician Joseph Fraunhofer. 

Any conversation with Mr. Riekher inevitably leads to his reaching into one of the hundreds of extensive research binders that line the walls of his two study rooms and basement. And he invariably locates a historic letter, accompanied by his own transcription, or some other important connection to a story or topic of conversation. Yesterday, he found a receipt of lenses he sold to someone in 1948; that person’s name appeared in a murder mystery set in northern Germany in the late 1940s, and Riekher remembered that this person had once been one of his customers.

Our conversation covered a lot of telescopic topics, including collections we need to visit so that we could examine important historic instruments. As usual, we learned much from him that informs our ongoing research. One of those research topics is the world’s oldest securely dated telescope, the topic of my next blog post. 

Visitors can learn more about the history of the telescope and view the Adler’s collection in the exhibition Telescopes: Through the Looking Glass.

“The Wider Scope: A Survey of Early Telescopes and Images, and their Scientific and Cultural Contexts” is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Written by Dr. Marvin Bolt, vice president of collections at the Adler Planetarium

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