A solar compass is a railroad compass with a solar attachment that lets surveyors find north by reference to the sun rather than by reference to the magnetic needle. The form originated with William Austin Burt, a United States Deputy Surveyor who began surveying government lands in Michigan in 1833. In 1835, while working in an area of Wisconsin where there were large deposits of iron ore, Burt experienced great difficulty in using his standard vernier compass. By December he had roughed out his ideas for a solar compass, and asked William J. Young to make a model that he could submit to the Patent Office. Burt received a patent (#9428) the following year, and the Franklin Institute awarded him the Scott’s Medal for this "ingenious" instrument.
This replica of Burt’s early design was made for the Smithsonian by W. & L. E. Gurley. The inscription reads "W. & L. Gurley, Troy, N.Y."
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