Inspired by a previous revision of one of the articles on the Kerbal Space Program wiki:

How would one plausibly have telescopes and/or cameras be present on an inhabited, civilised planet since antiquity?

For the purposes of this question, "antiquity" is defined as "a timeframe where the most advanced civilisation on the planet is at approximately Classical Greece-level [~400 B.C.E.-equivalent] or earlier".

"Camera" here refers to a device that can take pictures of something and store the pictures (or the precursors thereof) for later viewing - a camera obscura does not count.

Indigenous development would be preferable if at all possible, rather than having technology be left behind by visitors from a more advanced planet.

I'm guessing that telescopes would probably be the easier of the two, as the most advanced technology required to produce them is the ability to grind glass into the right shapes for curved lenses and/or mirrors, whereas building a camera requires some fairly advanced photochemistry and plain chemistry in order to be able to record an image on a light-sensitive film or plate and then have the resulting image not be destroyed when brought into an illuminated area for viewing. (I'm presuming that digital cameras would require a considerably more advanced level of technology than film or plate cameras; please feel free to correct me if I'm wrong in thinking that.)

  • $\begingroup$ What, exactly, do you mean by "ancient Greece?" "Classical Greece" (Pythagoreas) was abut 500-450B.C. Check out this chart and please pick a specific date because "ancient Greece" covers a very, very wide period of time during which a lot of tech was developed. $\endgroup$ – JBH Jul 10 '18 at 19:03

Telescope is definitely possible, cameras are not.

What is needed for telescope are lenses and the concept of telescope. People had used lenses since antiquity. It took however many centuries to study the properties of lenses and finally stumble upon the concept of telescope. In a different world, it may be that glass lensmaking was practiced since classical period, and by late antiquity telescope is already well known.

Camera, on the other hand, is a much more difficult invention. While simple camera lens can be constructed at the tech level of first telescope, photosensitive material requires advanced chemical knowledge that is not possible to accidentally step on. The telescope as we know it had appeared in XVII century and was essentially a result of long tinkering with different types of lenses, and photography appeared only in XIX century when chemistry was already a well established science.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Glassmaking has been around since at least 3,500B.C., the earliest optical lenses were 750B.C. Clear glass was about 100A.D.. Basic tech was there, so telescopes were possible. Photosensitivity? No way on earth. None of the basic tech was there. As you said, a boatload of chemistry, none of which predated classical greece or was within a few hundred years of classical greece. $\endgroup$ – JBH Jul 10 '18 at 19:01


The Telescope is a relatively simple device but it needs good, reliable glass manufacturing and working techniques that only really develop because the society is using a lot of transparent glass and someone takes an interest in particular image distortion effects from looking through it. The second part could happen in any society that uses a lot of clear glass. Getting to having easy access to transparent glass requires rather advanced furnace technology to prevent contamination, the first time we did it reliably in the west was under the Romans in the 3rd and 4th Centuries AD so from there on it was possible that such a discovery might have been made.

I'd argue the entire field of photo-chemistry was an accidental discovery, one that could have been made by the alchemists, although given how poorly they understood what they were doing they'd have had trouble getting good repeatable results. So black and white photography is theoretically possible from a very early date it's just unlikely to be in any way, shape, or form reliable.


Telescopes are easy, they would get invented for navigation and orientation proposes as well as religious ones, cameras on the other side could be invented with "manual image capture", there was an old Arab invention called camera obscura which projects images on walls and stuff, so maybe they could draw over the projected images making a "manual" camera

Edit: typo


As others have pointed out telescopes are certainly possible, the only real difficulties are getting clear glass (explicable as a chemical fluke) and sufficiently fine lens milking if you want high accuracy telescopes.

However I think there is a way to kickstart the camera industry too, at least enough to get early scientists interested in the concept. All you need is a famous monument, a darkened room with a hole in the wall, people with more money than sense and wood, preferable a wood rich in tannin and low in protective oils. Cue hand waved photo-pine.

First, set up a camera obscura room, with a tiny hole in one wall that projects an image onto the opposite wall.

Second, freshly mill some of the wood so it has a new exposed surface you can expose to the image.

Third, wait. This is the part I’m unsure on, as data on time taken for sun damage to occur is rare, and I can’t find anything on the UV content of your average Camera obscura projection. There are various solutions recommended for speeding up weathering (a paste of baking soda with occasional sprays of vinegar, according to one site, reduces the required time to a couple of days), but I have no idea if they actually work. Let’s say it takes a week of solid sunlight, care and attention purely to get the idea on the table (disclaimer: it might actually require decades)

Fourth, you have a piece of wood that is a negative of your image in some colours that depend on the wood. This is the best you’re going to get.

Fifth, oil it, put it in a box and sell it. The wood will fade to a uniform colour with exposure to sunlight. I know this doesn’t meet your ‘not destroyed by viewing’ criteria, but if the ‘exposure’ period is on the order of weeks then multiple viewings aren’t going to damage the image too much, and the box protects from casual sunlight.

Hopefully someone is rich enough to afford to buy these time intensive works, and even more hopefully there’s a local alchemist interested in bringing the price to produce them down...


The most obvious way of making a telescope has already been discussed above, and so I can't add much on that front. However, I see some interesting answers to a camera.

The difficulty with a camera is that of recording the image. A pinhole camera will be fine for getting the image, but some photosensitive material is needed, so, some suggestions for photosensitive materials:

1) Skin

The fact that skin burns/tans would likely be known to any civilisation, and so, given a hot enough sun, one could easily give oneself sunburn of an image, via a pinhole camera.

2) Anything

If your source is illuminated strongly enough, then it is possible to burn an image of something into just about anything, with enough solar power (I myself own a large lens, which I use to melt rocks - but if the sun is partially obscured, and I hold my lens over some wood, then I would burn the image of the covered sun into that wood - hey presto, an image is recorded)!

3) Leaves

If the image being recorded is likely to be static for a long period of time, then potentially one could use photosynthesis. I seem to remember from biology lessons past, that if a plant is lacking light on parts of its leaves, then it begins to lose pigmentation.

4) Water+Ink

Project your image onto a dark surface, with a thin layer of water droplets. The water will evaporate faster where there is more light. It would have been possible, if expensive, to get ice and make a refrigerated room, where this condensation pattern could be frozen. Another substance, such as white paint, could then be applied to the material. When the water melted, the paint would only remain where the most evaporation had occurred.

I hope that's what you were looking for!

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