Humboldt State University ® Department of Chemistry

Richard A. Paselk

Medieval Science & Scientific Instruments

References

History of Science in the Middle Ages

Crombie, A. C. Medieval and Early Modern Science. Doubleday & Co. Inc. Garden City (1959). A classic treatment, this was the text for decades. Much is now obsolete, but Crombie is still useful in the details it provides - many of the individuals mentioned or discussed in Crombie do not show up in the more recent treatments below.

Evans, James. The History & Practice of Ancient Astronomy. Oxford University Press, Oxford (1998). A wonderful new book which looks at ancient (particularly Greek, but spanning Babylonian to Medieval Europe) astronomy in context. Not only does the author provide many translations of how astronomy was actually done by the ancients, he also explains how to make observations of the celestial sphere using ancient tools and home-made modern counterparts. Tools explained range from the very simplest (the gnomon) to the complex (armillary spheres, astrolabes, planetary equatoria). An appendix even provides diagrams for photocopying to make an astrolabe and an equatorium for Mars.

The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge (1996). An up-to-date history. A strong defense of the position that the science of Medieval times led directly to modern science.

Lindberg, David C. The Beginnings of Western Science: The European Scientific Traditions in Philosophical, Religious, and Institutional Context, 600 B.C. to A.D. 1450. University of Chicago Press. Chicago (1992). This has been hailed as the replacement for Crombie. Excellent, wide ranging history. The place to start.

Descriptions/History of Instruments: Books

Bud, Robert and Warner, Deborah Jean, eds. Instruments of Science: An Historical Encyclopedia. Garland Publishing, Inc. New York (1998). This book is the result of a joint efforts of the Science Museum (London) and the National Museum of American History (Smithsonian Institution). The large (700+ p), well illustrated, multi-author volume features extremely broad coverage of scientific instruments. As expected for a multi-author work the coverage varies considerably with different instruments, some emphasizing history and others description and usage of the instrument. It is currently unique in its coverage of 20th century apparatus, while also covering instruments beginning with antiquity.

Chapman, Allan. Dividing the Circle: the development of critical angular measurements in astronomy 1500-1850. Ellis Horwood, New York (1990). Though this book starts where I would leave off, it is fascinating and invaluable. The author is that unusual combination of a historian who has also learned the arts of the mechanic. He has worked with machinists etc. and looked at old instruments with the eyes of one who understands metals and metal working techniques. He thus provides wonderful insight into the traditional ways of making instruments when hand work was still critical.

Department of Navigation and Astronomy. The Planispheric Astrolabe. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich (1983). An excellent, well illustrated pamphlet with detailed illustrated instructions on the use of the astrolabe. One of the best step-by-step descriptions of the astrolabe and its operation that I've seen.

Evans, James. The History & Practice of Ancient Astronomy. Oxford University Press, Oxford (1998). A wonderful new book which looks at ancient (particularly Greek, but spanning Babylonian to Medieval Europe) astronomy in context. Not only does the author provide many translations of how astronomy was actually done by the ancients, he also explains how to make observations of the celestial sphere using ancient tools and home-made modern counterparts. Tools explained range from the very simplest (the gnomon) to the complex (armillary spheres, astrolabes, planetary equatoria). An appendix even provides diagrams for photocopying to make an astrolabe and an equatorium for Mars.

Fisher, Dennis. Latitude Hooks and Azimuth Rings. International Marine, Camden (1995). This book is a bit different than any other on this list: its a how to build instruments book. It has detailed plans and instructions for the construction and use of 18 traditional navigation tools. Highly recommended for the beginning or intermediate instrument reproductionist.

Gibbs, Sharon, and Saliba, George. Planispheric Astrolabes from the American Museum of American History. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington (1984). Excellent illustrations of a large collection of both European and Islamic astrolabes. Includes detailed descriptions and photos of all the parts of most of the instruments. A good background history etc. is also provided.

Kielly, Edmund R. Surveying Instruments: Their History. Carben Surveying Reprints, Columbus. (1979 - reprint of 1947 original). Covers surveying from ancient times through the Renaissance. This book was originally written for high school mathematics/pre-engineering teachers. It thus emphasizes the mathematical aspects of the instruments (though fairly painlessly for the non-mathematical) that teachers could use as examples. Well illustrated, but no photos. Excellent.

Landes, David S. Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World. Belnap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA (1983). Part one ("Finding Time") is a marvelous treatment of the origins and development of the clock in Medieval Europe. On the way the author goes over the various arguments for Chinese priority and diffusion, when the mechanical clock was actually invented etc. The author also discusses social and cultural aspects and brings the history to modern times. Well written and highly recommended treatment.

Morrison, James, E. The Astrolabe. Janus, Rehoboth Beach, DE (2007). This is THE book for anyone wishing to build their own instrument or to understand and/or use an astrolabe. The author provides geometrical, mathematical and computer methods for laying out the scales, plots etc. on astrolabes of all types and quadrants. I used a preprint from the author in laying out an astrolabe in progress and found it extremely helpful - just the thing as I had lost my notes from my previous instrument of twenty years ago, and had a limited memory of my calculations.

Mörzer-Bruyns, W.F.J. The Cross-Staff: History and Development of a Navigational Instrument. Vereeniging Nederlandsch Historisch Scheepvaart Museum, Amsterdam (1994). This book gives a very thorough description and history of the cross-staff, a modest but very important navigational instrument. Just as important for the model builder the author describes the layout of typical instruments, and describes all of the known extant examples, with dimensions, markings etc. The definitive work on these instruments. Stimson, Alan. The Mariner's Astrolabe: A survey of known, surviving sea astrolabes. HES Publishers, Utrecht (1988).The history, development, and design considerations of these navigational instruments are very well covered. Sea (or navigational) astrolabes were once very rare, being, like the cross-staff, rather utilitarian, and thus not likely candidates for early collectors. However, with the advent of salvage diving more are showing up regularly. Stimson lists and describes the 60 known in 1988. A very valuable scale diagram with line drawings of all 60 instruments is given, along with tables of scales etc. Invaluable to the reproduction of these instruments.

Turner, Anthony. Astrolabes; Astrolabe Related Instruments. The Time Museum, Rockford (1985). An excellent, beautifully illustrated and relatively expensive volume. Highly recommended.

Turner, Anthony. Early Scientific Instruments: Europe 1400-1800. Sotheby's Publications (1987). Wonderful descriptive history of all kinds of scientific instruments and their development by one of the world's top authorities. Very well illustrated with color and black & white photos. Excellent background, and puts instruments in context.

Webster, Roderick and Marjorie. Western Astrolabes (Historic Scientific Instruments of the Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum: Volume I). Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum, Chicago (1998). An excellent new book on astrolabes. As with Turner's catalog for the Time Museum, there is an excellent introduction to astrolabes: history, design and use. The actual astrolabe descriptions are somewhat more detailed, providing some of the extra information of interest to the astrolabe reproductionist, such as thickness, materials, engraved versus stamped, star positions etc. The book does not use full color, rather gold tones are used for the astrolabe pictures, a very effective compromise for this subject. This first volume only covers European instruments, as the title suggests. Additional volumes on eastern astrolabes, sundials, telescopes, etc. are planned, an effort worth watching!

Descriptions of Instruments: Articles

(Few of us actually get to handle or study genuine medieval instruments, and thus determine actual construction techniques. The articles below provide such details for a few instruments. I found them particularly facinating.)

Chapman, Alan. "A study of the accuracy of scale graduations on a group of European astrolabes" Annals of Science 40 (1983) pp 473-488. Wonderful information regarding the accuracy and precision of these instruments based on modern measurements. The author also deduces the modes of scale construction for various instruments based on the measurements made.

Gordon, Robert B. "Sixteenth-Century Metalworking Technology used in the Manufacture of two German Astrolabes" Annals of Science 44 (1987) pp 71-84. A close examination of two Hartman astrolabes enabled the author to determine the tools and techniques used in their manufacture. Dimensions etc. also provided. The most detailed information I am aware of regarding traditonal techniques of instrument manufacture. Excellent.

Gordon, Robert B. "Metallography of brass in a 16th century astrolabe." Journal of the Historical Metallurgy Society 20 (1986) pp 93-96. A metalographic examination of a Hartman astrolabe giving alloy composition, surface finish etc.

L'E Turner, Gerard. "The Craftsmanship of the 'Caroligian' Astrolabe, IC 3042" Physis: Rivista Internazionale di Storia 32 (1995) pp 421-432. A detailed description of a putative early medieval astrolabe emphasizing craftsmanship, layout etc.

Early Construction Resources

Bion, M. The Construction and Principle Uses of Mathematical Instruments. (translated and supplemented by Edmund Stone) 1758 [reprinted by Astragal Press, 1995]. Stone's translation of Bion's treatise (originally printed in French in 1709) is probably the ultimate contemporary resource on the making of early scientific instruments. Most early instruments are described and illustrated, and detailed construction information is given. Since instrument making through this period was largely evolutionary rather than revolutionary, many medieval designs are described in this text along with more recent inventions.

Chaucer, Geoffrey. Treatise on the Astrolabe. 1391 [Various reprints]. Yes this is the Chaucer you remember from high school and college lit. He was truly a "Renaissance man," writing this charming treatise which both describes how to make and to use and astrolabe for his young son. Looks like Medieval education in math and science was better than ours if this is representative!

Fine, Oronce. Second Book of Solar Horology. (interpretation in English by Peter I. Drinkwater). Peter I. Drinkwater, Warwickshire. 1993. In this little pamphlet (32 pages) Drinkwater presents an "interpretation" of Fine's early 16th century work, which includes additional background, calculations etc. The second book deals with observational instruments focusing on time keeping (quadrants, pillar dial, ring dial, astrolabe etc.). Highly recommended for the Medieval/Renaissance dialer.

Technique Resources

Maryon, Herbert. Metalwork and Enameling. Dover Publications, Inc. New York. 1971. Maryon "reconstructed" ancient metalwork for the British Museum and was an expert in both ancient and modern metal techniques, both of which are described in this book. A classic.

McCreight, Tim. The Complete Metalsmith: An Illustrated Handbook. Davis Publications, Inc. Worcester. 1991. An excellent, practical how-to manual for most of the common metal techniques for artists and craftspeople-thus excellent for the instrument maker. Highly recommended.

Untracht, Oppi. Metal Techniques for Craftsmen. Doubleday & Co. Inc. Garden City. 1975. A comprehensive, in-depth coverage of metal working techniques, tools, etc. in crafts and jewelry. Excellent reference.

Instruments Medieval Science & Scientific Instruments

Workshops

© R. Paselk
Last modified 6 March 2008