Without doubt the astrolabes is one of the most fascinating of all historical astronomical instruments.
To begin with it is not simply one object, it is many objects in one:
- An astronomical measuring device
- A timepiece
- An analogue computer
- A two dimensional representation of the three dimensional celestial sphere
- A work of art and a status symbol
This Medieval-Renaissance Swiss Army penknife of an astronomical instrument had according to one medieval Islamic commentator, al-Sufi writing in the tenth century, more than one thousand different functions. Even Chaucer in what is considered to be the first English language description of the astrolabe and its function, a pamphlet written for a child, describes at least forty different functions.
The astrolabe was according to legend invented by Hipparchus of Nicaea, the second century BCE Greek astronomer but there is no direct evidence that he did so. The oldest surviving description of the planisphere, that two-dimensional representation of the three-dimensional celestial sphere, comes from Ptolemaeus in the second century CE.
Theon of Alexandria wrote a thesis on the astrolabe, in the fourth century CE, which did not survive and there are dubious second-hand reports that Hypatia, his daughter invented the instrument. The oldest surviving account of the astrolabe was written in the sixth century CE by John Philoponus. However it was first the Islamic astronomers who created the instrument, as it is known today, it is said for religious purposes, to determine the direction of Mecca and the time of prayer. The earliest surviving dated instrument is dated 315 AH, which is 927/28 CE.
It is from the Islamic Empire that knowledge of the instrument found its way into medieval Europe. Chaucer’s account of it is based on that of the eight-century CE Persian Jewish astrologer, Masha’allah ibn Atharī, one of whom claim to fame is writing the horoscope to determine the most auspicious date to found the city of Baghdad.
However this brief post is not about the astrolabe as a scientific instrument in itself but rather the last point in my brief list above the astrolabe as a work of art and a status symbol. One of the reasons for people’s interest in astrolabes is the fact that they are simply beautiful to look at. This is not a cold, functional scientific instrument but an object to admire, to cherish and desire. A not uncommon reaction of people being introduced to astrolabes for the first time is, oh that is beautiful; I would love to own one of those. And so you can there are people who make replica astrolabes but buying one will set you back a very pretty penny.
That astrolabes are expensive is not, however, a modern phenomenon. Hand crafted brass, aesthetically beautiful, precision instruments, they were always very expensive and the principal market would always have been the rich, often the patrons of the instrument makers. The costs of astrolabes were probably even beyond the means of most of the astronomers who would have used them professionally and it is significant that most of the well know astrolabe makers were themselves significant practicing astronomers; according to the principle, if you need it and can’t afford it then make it yourself. Other astronomers would probably have relied on their employers/patrons to supply the readies. With these thoughts in mind it is worth considering the claim made by David King, one of the world’s greatest experts on the astrolabe, that the vast majority of the surviving astrolabes, made between the tenth nineteenth centuries – about nine hundred – were almost certainly never actually used as scientific instruments but were merely owned as status symbols. This claim is based on, amongst other things, the fact that they display none of the signs of the wear and tear, which one would expect from regular usage.
Does this mean that the procession of astrolabes was restricted to a rich elite and their employees? Yes and no. When European sailors began to slowly extend their journeys away from coastal waters into the deep sea, in the High Middle Ages they also began to determine latitude as an element of their navigation. For this purpose they needed an instrument like the astrolabe to measure the elevation of the sun or of chosen stars. The astrolabe was too complex and too expensive for this task and so the so-called mariners astrolabe was developed, a stripped down, simplified, cheaper and more robust version of the astrolabe. When and where the first mariner’s astrolabe was used in not known but probably not earlier than the thirteenth century CE. Although certainly not cheap, the mariner’s astrolabe was without doubt to be had for considerably less money than its nobler cousin.
Another development came with the advent of printing in the fifteenth century, the paper astrolabe. At first glance this statement might seem absurd, how could one possibly make a high precision scientific measuring instrument out of something, as flexible, unstable and weak as paper? The various parts of the astrolabe, the planisphere, the scales, the rete star-map, etc. are printed onto sheets of paper. These are then sold to the customer who cuts them out and pastes them onto wooden forms out of which he then constructs his astrolabe, a cheap but serviceable instrument. One well-known instrument maker who made and sold printed-paper astrolabes and other paper instruments was the Nürnberger mathematician and astronomer Georg Hartmann. The survival rate of such cheap instruments is naturally very low but we do actually have one of Hartmann’s wood and paper astrolabes.
In this context it is interesting to note that, as far as can be determined, Hartmann was the first instrument maker to develop the serial production of astrolabes. Before Hartmann each astrolabe was an unicum, i.e. a one off instrument. Hartmann standardised the parts of his brass astrolabes and produced them, or had them produced, in batches, assembling the finished product out of these standardised parts. To what extent this might have reduced the cost of the finished article is not known but Hartmann was obviously a very successful astrolabe maker as nine of those nine hundred surviving astrolabes are from his workshop, probably more than from any other single manufacturer.
If this post has awoken your own desire to admire the beauty of the astrolabe then the biggest online collection of Medieval and Renaissance scientific instruments in general and astrolabes in particular is the Epact website, a collaboration between the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, the British Museum, the Museum of the History of Science in Florence and the Museum Boerhaave in Leiden.
This blog post was partially inspired by science writer Philip Ball with whom I had a brief exchange on Twitter a few days ago, which he initiated, on our mutual desire to possess a brass astrolabe.