Mariner's Astrolabe

Mariners were using astrolabes like this one to determine latitude by the late fifteenth century. A mariner would hold the astrolabe up at noon so the sun shone through its two sights. He would then read the scale to determine the sun’s altitude and consult a table of the sun’s daily declination to determine the latitude of his ship. Astrolabes with bigger pinholes could also be used to sight stars. Because it had to be suspended for use, the astrolabe was affected by the rocking of the ship and the wind. It was eventually replaced by the cross staff and then the back staff, both of which were cheaper to build and easier to use.
This astrolabe was reportedly found at the bottom of Manila Harbor in 1917 and may have been used on a Portuguese ship. The alidade, axis pin, and butterfly nut may not be original. The numbered scale is inaccurate, with "40" stamped twice and the "0" position marked as "1." Though the instrument is relatively small, it is quite heavy, weighing approximately 5.5 pounds. The instrument is inscribed "1602."
Ref: Alan Stimson. The Mariner’s Astrolabe (Utrecht, 1988), p. 70-71.
Object Name
astrolabe, mariner's
date made
Physical Description
brass (overall material)
overall: 7.5 cm x 18.2 cm x 23.4 cm; 2 15/16 in x 7 5/32 in x 9 7/32 in
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Measuring & Mapping
Time and Navigation
See more items in
Medicine and Science: Mathematics
Time and Navigation
Time and Navigation, National Air and Space Museum
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Credit Line
Gift of the Barlow Family
Additional Media

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