The Astrolabe. Why have Sat Nav or a Smartphone?

I have a favourite artefact at the British Museum.  One I never fail to go and admire, whenever I happen to be visiting this treasure trove of international archeology.

Copyright Trustees of the British Museum

Hebrew Astrolabe (front view) Copyright Trustees of the British Museum

It was a couple of years ago.  I was lucky enough to have the day off teaching, and was lazing in bed later than usual, listening to BBC Radio 4.  They had been broadcasting a wonderful series, in fifteen-minute episodes, called The History of the World in 100 Objects, but I had heard very few because of my workload.  That morning, I turned up the radio, and heard the Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, talking about a fourteenth Century astrolabe.  I had no idea what an astrolabe was.  From the Greek, meaning “Star Finder”.  I was so mesmerised by his description that, within minutes of the programme ending, I had dressed, breakfasted, and dashed out of the flat.  I had made plans for my morning off but, at that moment, none seemed as urgent – or as fun – as going to see this extraordinary object for myself.  And so I took the Tube to Bloomsbury, and walked up the steps of the imposing Grecian building.

I was not disappointed.  Even now, the more I see this astrolabe, the more it fascinates me.  Peering through the glass display cabinet, my glasses on my nose, I long to hold it in the palm of my hand.  I yearn to feel the coolness of the gilt brass, and run my fingertips on the delicately engraved inscriptions and symbols.  Letters in Hebrew, Arabic and Mediaeval Spanish.  Symbols that remind me of Moorish arches and Gothic vaults.  Such a small object, yet charged with the knowledge of the man who crafted it with such precision, and the knowledge of the man who owned it.  Without doubt a highly intelligent, educated man.  Perhaps a scholar.  Or a wealthy man with a love for knowledge.

Hebrew Astrolabe (reverse) Copyright Trustees of the British Museum

Hebrew Astrolabe (reverse) Copyright Trustees of the British Museum

A small, beautiful instrument, crafted over seven centuries ago, during the Spanish golden age of the convivencia, when three religions brought their knowledge together for the love of Science and the Arts.  An instrument that can tell you the time, your geographical position with the help of the sun and the stars, draw your horoscope, and perform mathematical calculations.  A reproduction of the firmament, in the palm of your hand.  Unlike the BlackBerry from which I finally un-slaved myself, a couple of months ago, the astrolabe needs not be at the whim of signal, or charged up.  Moreover, let  us admit it – is it not aesthetically superior to any of the latest smartphone designs?

I read on the BBC website that the astrolabe was a globe, a map, a sextant, a chronometer and a compass, all in one.  So what led us to compromise our standards, and settle for objects that are inferior to this perfect and conveniently-sized one? I cannot help but consider it as yet another nugget of human brilliance which, like so any others, has been buried in the dust of modern ignorance.  We know so much more now – and so much less.

How I wish I could have an astrolabe, and someone to teach me how to use it.

I cannot recommend the episode on the Hebrew Astrolabe highly enough.  It is only fifteen minutes long, and can be heard on the BBC website here.  You can even download a free podcast.

I wish to thank the Web Team at the British Museum for kindly allowing me to use the image of the astrolabe.

Should you be planning to visit the British Museum, here is a link to the page about the Hebrew astrolabe.

Scribe Doll

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14 Responses to The Astrolabe. Why have Sat Nav or a Smartphone?

  1. Rob Lightfoot says:

    It’s such a pity that some secrets have been lost to us, and that we can only glimpse at the wonders of scientific understanding that were once ours.

    This piece reminds me of a documentary I saw about the Antikythera Mechanism (months and months ago). They certainly knew how to weld science and art together (despite the amazing things an electron microscope, or the Large Hadron Collider can show us, compared to an astrolabe, they do look rather ugly).

  2. I have heard several of the episodes from this series and they are all interesting.
    There is so much ancient wisdom in danger of being lost. Without electricity calculators do not work, but slide rules do. How many people can use one now?
    I think Philip Pullman used the astrolabe as the inspiration for one of his books, which was turned into the film “The Golden Compass”. Sue

  3. Anna says:

    I wonder how they made use of it? It seems so intricate and sophisticated! I doubt if I ever could make head or tail of it). But of course, I would like to see it with my own eyes and hold it in my hands!

  4. What a lovely object! Functional, well-crafted, and beautiful too. We just don’t make things like we used to, do we? Thanks especially for the link to the BBC episode; I’m going to listen to the rest of the series as well.

  5. What a beautiful object. It’s heartening to remember how Islamic scholars, and scholars they were, could have been so tolerant in the interest of knowledge. Today it’s a matter of lifting the collective voices (voices that did not exist 700 years ago,) to hopefully attain intelligence beyond pressing buttons.

  6. A person is described by their enthusiasms: during the time I have been following your site, I have yet to find an enthusiasm of yours that is less than classy and intriguing!

    • scribedoll says:

      Ha! That’s because I write only about the classy and intriguing ones :–) Somehow, I don’t suppose anyone would be interested in reading about my enthusiasm for salty popcorn and slushy afternoon TV movies in which everyone – now matter how poor – has a huge, well-furnished house, and is very nice to everyone else.

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