Proprietary Discovery: Secrecy and intellectual property, beginning with Galielo’s telescope


Modern scientists have become in­creasingly aggressive in protecting their intellectual property by patent­ing their discoveries and, sometimes, by keeping them secret. Galileo anticipated this trend.

As soon as he observed the satellites of Jupiter (which he called Medicean Stars) and the irregularities of the lunar surface with his telescope during the winter of 1609-1610, Galileo acted as though the corroboration of his observations were easy, not difficult. His primary worry was not that some people might reject his claims, but rather that those able to replicate them could too easily proceed to make further discoveries on their own and deprive him of future credit. He tried to slow down potential replicators to prevent them from becoming competi­tors. He did so by not providing other practitioners access to high-power tele­scopes and by not including information about how to build them in the Sidereus nuncius – the report of his discoveries he published in March 1610.

Proprietary Discovery_Telescope

Prior to the publication of the book, Galileo was secretive even with his Medici patrons, keeping them in the dark about the fact that the Medicean Stars orbited Jupiter — most likely to prevent them from accidentally leaking any informa­tion that would have enabled potential competitors to precede him to print. He went so far as to ask the Medici secretary to treat his correspondence about the dis­coveries with the same level of confiden­tiality he had for important diplomatic matters. Then, to avoid possible leaks by the printer of the book, Galileo provided him the section on the Medicean Stars (arguably the most striking of his discov­eries) only at the end, when the rest of the book was already printed.

The Nuncius was carefully crafted to maximize the credit Galileo could ex­pect from readers while minimizing the information given out to potential com­petitors. Although it was researched, written, and printed in less than three months, it offered detailed, painstaking narratives of Galileo’s observations and abundant pictorial evidence about his discoveries. In the case of the satellites of Jupiter, Galileo offered many pages of night-by-night diagrams of the changing positions of the satellites, trying to cre­ate a virtual ‘movie’ that could captivate and convince his readers without making them develop the desire to reproduce the observations on their own. In any case, it would have been very difficult for them to replicate the discoveries because, when it came to the telescope, the book declined to tell its readers how Galileo ground the lenses, the dimension of his telescopes, or the type of glass, size, and focal length of the lenses he used. While he promised a forthcoming book on the workings of the telescope, he never pub­lished it, nor do we have any manuscript evidence of such a project.

Galileo’s differential treatment of his various audiences proved successful. He did take some short-term risk by re­linquishing the credit he could have re­ceived from other mathematicians and astronomers through early widespread replications. But by the end of 1610 he had developed a monopoly on telescopic astronomy, which he then maintained with the resources available to him as mathematician and philosopher of the grand duke of Tuscany – the position he obtained by dedicating his discoveries to the Medici. It was that monopoly that turned Galileo into a “star” (1).


1 For a fuller discussion, see Chapter II of my Galileo’s Instruments of Credit: Telescopes, Images, Secrecy (Chicago: University of Chi­cago Press, 2007).

About the Author


Mario Biagioli is Professor of the History of Science at Harvard and Chair of Modern Thought, History of Science and Law at the University of Aberdeen. After studying computer science at the University of Pisa (Italy) and receiving an MFA from the Visual Studies Workshop (Rochester, NY), he was awarded a PhD in history of science from UC Berkeley in 1989. His work has focused mostly on the place of science and discovery in the baroque court, and the uses of instruments, imaging techniques, and the tactical uses of print, spectacle, and display in the making of knowledge (Galileo Courtier (University of Chicago Press, 1993) and Galileo’s Instruments of Credit (University of Chicago Press, 2006)). More recently, his research has turned to the history and philosophy of intellectual property and the author function in science from 1600 to ‘big science’. He has edited (with Peter Galison) Scientific Authorship (Routledge, 2003) and is working on Making IP – a book on intellectual property in science. He is the editor of The Science Studies Reader (Routledge, 1998), and (with Martha Woodmansee and Peter Jaszi) of IP Worlds — a collection on contemporary trends in intellectual property (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming 2010). Prior to joining Harvard in 1995, Biagioli was a member of the history department at UCLA and co- director of the Center for Cultural Studies of Science, Technology, and Medicine.