The Museum’s object collection contains approximately 32,000 items ranging in size from one-half inch to more than ninety feet and encompasses every conceivable type of object.Search Our Catalogs
This is your chance to get an inside look at what goes on behind the scenes in our storage areas and workrooms. Whether the artifacts are old or new, in storage or on display, each one has a story to tell. And so do the three staff members who are responsible for the care and feeding of all the items!Read the Collections blog
In the maritime world the phrase “between wind and water” usually refers to the part of a ship’s side or bottom that is exposed by the rolling of the vessel while under sail or following the firing of cannons during battle. In this context we use the phrase to indicate anything on a ship from the top to the bottom.
World War II era U.S. Navy submariners commonly fashioned informal battle flags adorned with symbols marking the successes they achieved during combat war patrols. Compared with those of other American submariners, the battle flag crafted by the crewmen of the U.S.S. Barb stands out as one of the more remarkable. Under Commander Eugene B. “Lucky” Fluckey, Barb is credited with sinking more than 29.5 Axis vessels totaling an estimated 146,808 gross registered tons—causing severe damage to a number of others. These successes are represented in graphic form around the Barb logo of “One Eyed Herman” in the center of the battle flag.
Prominently appearing at the top of the battle flag are icons of the notable citations and medals that were earned by the Barb officers and crew. Given in appreciation for service, this presentation copy of the Barb battle flag was given by Fluckey and crew to Lieutenant Jim Webster in late 1945. Webster served as executive officer (XO) under Fluckey during the eleventh and twelfth war patrols and was transferred from the Barb ultimately to assume command of another submarine. During the eleventh war patrol, Webster had a vital role in an attack against Imperial Japanese vessels at anchor in Namkwam Harbor in occupied China. After that action, Fluckey was designated to wear the Congressional Medal of Honor on behalf of the Barbcrew for their collective heroism during the eleventh war patrol. Thus, the ribbon for this singularly prestigious medal appears at the top center of the Barb battle flag.
Figureheads disappeared from steamboats as the vessels’ stems became less and less raked, or slanted. In their stead, pilothouse eagles, stern decorations, and especially paddleboxes provided fresh opportunities for carvers to practice their art. Paddlebox ornaments such as this decorated the structure covering the paddle wheels.
The design derives from the Massachusetts State seal. The motto translates as; “With the sworn she seeks calm repose under liberty.” Since the sixteenth century, European artists had used figures of Native Americans to symbolize the exotic character and economic promise of the New World.
This is an engraved powder horn showing a map of the courses of the Allegany and Monongahela Rivers and the towns and forts along them, including Fort Duquesne. A wood plug in the end has an inscribed compass-drawn floral pattern. A red stain in the incised lines may be milk paint. Place names include the Allegany River, Sennakaas, Logs Town, Allegany Indian Town, Shanapie Town, Fort Duquesne, Manongahealy River, Turtle Creek, Kuskuskies Town, Yauyaugany River, Sharps Town, Shingoes Town and Beaver Creek.
This large cast iron ship’s wheel was given to the Museum in 1951 by the Tredegar Company in Richmond, Virginia. Company tradition indicated that the wheel was purportedly used on board the C.S.S. Virginia. Many questions exist regarding the wheel’s history and provenance. Was the wheel originally used on board the U.S.S. Merrimack dating the piece around 1856 and the fabrication location somewhere in Massachusetts? If so, was the wheel salvaged from the burned out hulk of the Merrimack and reused on the Virginia or in 1862, did Tredegar Iron Works fabricate an entirely new wheel for the vessel?
How did Tredegar acquire the wheel? Was it recovered during salvage operations following the sinking of the Virginia? Unfortunately, to the distress of the Museum’s curators the answers to these questions and many more may never be known.
This medicine chest was used aboard the New Bedford whaler Rousseau in the mid-nineteenth century.
The sailor who owned this mid-nineteenth-century chest was apparently involved in the domestic slave trade. The bold interior illustration of a slave and trader implies that the sailor was either brazen, proud of his profession, or both.
Damage could occur when hauling an anchor with a stock, so catheads, or heavy timbers, were built into the port and starboard bows of ships. The anchor lines went over and through the cathead timbers. The plates served as decoration as well as protection for the ends of these wooden beams.
This life vest, presumably from the Titanic, was acquired by Edwin Clay McLellan, an undertaker sent to Halifax, Nova Scotia for the purpose of preparing the hundreds of bodies recovered from the wreck for burial.
Family tradition states that this button came from the coat worn by Admiral Horatio Nelson during the Battle of the Nile on August 1, 1798. While it is not entirely possible to document the piece as actually coming from Lord Nelson’s coat, the maker’s mark dates the button to the 1771-1780 time period—which corresponds with Nelson’s early career in the Royal Navy. Nelson became a midshipman aboard the Raisonnable in March of 1771 and by 1779 was a post captain in command of the frigate Hinchinbroke.
The Mariners’ Museum’s collection of ninety-two figureheads that once graced the bows of sailing ships comprises one of the largest figurehead collections in the world, some of which are prominently displayed throughout the Museum. From ancient to modern times, seafarers have decorated the bows of the vessels with figureheads of either animal or human forms for a variety of reasons—from the ship’s name to protection from the sea to glorification. Used by the early Egyptians, figureheads were common until the transition from sail to steam in the late ninteenth century.
The meticulously carved Eagle figurehead from the USS Lancaster is situated inside the main entryway of the Museum. Restored to its original glittering finish with its wingspan of eighteen feet and weight of 3,200 pounds, it symbolizes the nation’s growing power and international stature. When the US Navy was rebuilding the steam frigate in 1880, they commissioned Bellamy who was paid $2.32 a day to carve the enormous Eagle.
The figurehead from the Bear of Oakland was an emblem for the ship’s destination – arctic exploration. Following his celebrated expedition, Admiral Byrd presented the figurehead to The Mariners Museum.
The Jenny Lind figurehead head was attributed the ship Nightingale built in 1851. Jenny was considered the finest operatic soprano of her time. From 1850 to 1852 she toured the United States under the promotion P.T. Barnum, who billed her as the “Swedish Nightingale”. Her charity work to Sailors Homes and Hospitals made her popular with seamen to the point that more than thirty-five vessels bearing the name Jenny Lind are recorded.
Often tranquil, but in constant motion, beautiful yet tempestuous, the sea has always been a source of fascination—and inspiration to artists. Since the 17th century, artists around the world have often returned to this subject in an attempt to interpret and redefine humandkind’s changing relationship with the sea.
The Mariners’ Museum features one of the finest collections of maritime art in the United States. The collection spans the Seventeenth to the late Twentieth century and includes many significant maritime artists and historical events. In addition to works by Fitz Hugh Lane, Robert Salmon, Samuel Walters, Thomas Luny, Robert Cleveley, William Bradford and Edward Cooke, there are two substantial compilations of paintings by Antonio Jacobsen and brothers James and John Bard. All of these works testify to the enduring power of the sea in the human imagination.
The decorative arts collection encompasses objects that reflect daily uses and provide insight into the cultures that created them. They range from textiles, ceramics, silverware, furniture, ship and boat decoration, embroidered works, toys, and carvings.
James Buttersworth commemorates one of the trial races to determine which American yacht would defend the America’s Cup in 1893. Notice the crew on Vigilant’s foredeck preparing to hoist a sail as the yacht leads Jubilee, Pilgrim, and Colonia. After a summer of such trials, Nathanael Herreshoff’s Vigilant was selected to represent the New York Yacht Club in defense of the cup.
Even by 1893, when photographers like Edwin Levick and James Burton were documenting yachts and important regattas, there was still a viable market for paintings by artists of Buttersworth’s caliber.
Creamware pitchers were made for owners and captains of many American ships that called in Liverpool. Usually the images were transfer prints. In this case, however, the image of the Orozimbo of Baltimore is hand-painted in oils.
William Trost Richards was one of the foremost American seascape painters of the 19th century. This atmospheric scene of waves crashing along the Cornish coast of England reflects his ability to accurately depict the point where land and sea meet.
During a trip to England, Richards wrote of the Cornish coast, “On the Coast, through the Action of the sea and of frost; the rocks have been worn into the most fantastic shapes and the color is peculiar to the ‘serpentine’ of this district . . . The whole coast has a dark and tragic character….“
Samuel Walters shows the American steamer Baltic rounding Holyhead on the northwest coast of Wales, with South Stack Light just to the right of Holyhead. Baltic is inbound to Liverpool, passing the lighthouse on the Skerries on the left side of the painting. This is the initial area where a pilot could be taken on; the Liverpool pilot schooner number 8 is shown sailing out, probably to meet Baltic.
At best, whalers suffered from the most appalling working conditions of any commercial enterprise that operated at sea. On board the whaleship, sailors often experienced long periods of time where there was little work to do. Many took advantage of that time to carve images on the whale’s teeth—one of the very few parts of the whale considered commercially insignificant.
Ships and voyages were common themes depicted on whale’s teeth. This tooth shows a ship in stormy seas off of Cape Horn. It may reflect a specific passage the carver actually made, or one he had heard about.
Not all maritime subject matter is serious. One of the great 19th-century caricaturists portrays the rather undignified manner in which a party of well-dressed boaters is going overboard.
Captain James Lawson commissioned Bard to paint this portrait of the Hudson River schooner Robert Knapp. The oversize flag giving the name of the ship is a typical Bard touch, and suggests the artist’s desire to please his client.
James and his twin brother John were renowned for their detailed portrayals of commercial watercraft plying the Hudson River. One of the largest collections of the brother’s works can be found at The Mariners’ Museum.
Although most of Antonio Jacobsen’s paintings were commissioned ship portraits, he occasionally depicted actual events.County of Edinburgh ran aground on February 12, 1900. In spite of the adverse conditions that caused the ship’s plight, Jacobsen depicts a relatively calm scene: As locals arrive to take in the spectacle, crew are shown high in the rigging, the ship no longer in danger.
The works of Antonio Jacobsen are one of the largest parts of the Painting Collection at The Mariners’ Museum.
The Mariners’ Museum’s collection of models is truly extraordinary. Included are one of the world’s great collections of steamship builders’ and boardroom models and the world-renowned creations of preeminent model makers August and Winifred Crabtree. Currently numbering around two thousand pieces; the collection contains models documenting nearly every type of vessel ever constructed. The object range in size and shape from an exquisitely detailed model of a Chinese sampan carved from a small nut to a massive half-model 33′ long and 9′ high of the Queen Elizabeth constructed for display at the British Pavilion during the New York World’s fair of 1930-1940.
Also included in the assemblage are builders’ models, half-models, miniature and waterline models, folk art and sailor-made models, patent, engine and models of ship’s equipment, tow-tank and experimental models. The collection also includes a wide variety of vessels constructed by native cultures around the world and the highly significant Edwin Tappan collection of native North American canoe models.
This is, beyond doubt, one of the most perfect models, of any type, in the world. It is a quarter-sized, working model, based on a “Metropolitan Double Extra First Size Engine” built for the St. Louis Exposition of 1904 and later sold to the Philadelphia Fire Department. The model was a lifelong dream of the William Francis and Frederic Gibbs and was built over a seven-year period by a team of seven Gibbs & Cox modelmakers under the personal supervision of William.
It is completely detailed, lavishly decorated, totally accurate, and fully operational. The gauges work, the canvassed rubber hose is made precisely as the original, and the bell and whistle are even tuned to the original notes! Steaming at 80 pounds to the square inch on cannel coal fuel, the model’s pump can throw two streams of water up to fifty feet.
In 1804, a new yacht was launched for George III of England, the Royal Sovereign. Unfortunately, due to his advanced age and metal instability, the king never set foot on the vessel after 1805. This model may have been built for him before the ship was completed, to explain the details of her furnishings. It may also have been a royal toy in later years, a reminder of happier times afloat. The ship served as a royal yacht until 1832; she was then decommissioned and used a depot ship until she was broken up in 1850.
The model is extraordinary for its detailed representation of both the exterior and the interior of the vessel. There are very few records that describe the interiors of ships in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The few that do survive suggest that the furnishings were more elaborate and luxurious than might have been supposed.
Of course, a royal vessel would have been elaborate indeed. Note especially the fabric wall coverings, the carpeting, the paintings, and the highly embellished furniture. A gold crown surmounts the king’s bed. Even less common than descriptions of the living accommodations are those of work areas. The fully fitted galley is thus of special interest, as are the various arrangements made for sanitation and bathing. The human figures may not be contemporary with the model.
When the Royal Sovereign was launched, she was described as having sides—ornamented with medallions representing the Four Cardinal Virtues, as female figures, in gilt frames… the figurehead is a representation of Her Majesty with the Imperial Crown over her head… The stern is decorated with the figure of Neptune in his Car, with his Trident in his hand, the Sea underneath, and Dolphins playing around. Over the cabin windows are under the taffrail are placed the figures of the four Quarters of the World… Upon the whole, as sailors term it, there is an abundance of gingerbread work. These decorative elements are all visible on the model. In addition to the working launching ways, the model is fitted with a full complement of spars, which have apparently never been fitted to the hull. They are contained in drawers on either side of the case. The case itself is believed to be original to the model, and is fitted with silver crowns at each corner.
Built in 1878, the Maud Hargreaves was stationed at Dartmouth, England, under the management of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. The Institution presented this model to Mrs. Hargreaves in 1878.
Built by Richardson, Duck and Company at Stockton, England, the handsome Bangalore exemplified nearly the final development of the sailing cargo vessel. Iron construction, double topsails, and double topgallants had been developed in the previous thirty years. The final stage of commercial sail would see only the change to steel, the addition of steam auxiliary machinery, and, in many larger examples, a fourth mast.
Bangalore made some remarkable passages, sailing from Calcutta to New York in eighty-eight days, and from New York to Java in eighty-three days. Her best day’s run was 351 nautical miles—an average speed of 14.6 knots. She came into United States ownership after being stranded at Cape Henry, Virginia, and repaired locally in 1900. In 1908 she left Norfolk with a cargo of coal for the United States Navy at Pearl Harbor and was one of two ships that disappeared after being sighted by a third vessel off Cape Horn. The mariner who saw them believed the Bangalore and the Falkenbank had collided and sunk in a squall.
The modelmaker had spent years at sea, including service in the Bangalore’s crew, and was described in 1940 as one of America’s three outstanding modelmakers. This is one of the finest sailing-ship models in the Museum’s collection.
The Norwich and New London Steamboat Company presented this unusual model to the Commonwealth’s Captain, Jerome Wheeler Williams, in 1864. Built by goldsmith, J. Dean Benton, the model is made of 18-carat gold and coin silver. A music box concealed in the base played ten popular tunes of the day, while a clockwork mechanism operated the paddle wheels and walking beam.
This magnificent object is unquestionably one of the rare gems of the Museum’s collection, and one of a small number (probably under 20, some of which may no longer exist) of precious-metal models, mounted on music boxes, by the same maker. The model features especially fine anchors, paddle-box “fans” and lunettes, chain guys, curved ladders, fretwork railing, window sash, panels, beam engine, fire buckets, and pump. Elegant inlaid wooden base, housing music box.
Having evolved from the early piston and cylinder steam engines used to pump water out of mines, maritime steam engines were developed in the late eighteenth century. Experimentation with various engine types and placements led to the walking beam design.
Called a “walking beam” because of its steady rocking action, the diamond-shaped beam pivots in the center, transmitting the vertical motion of the engines single large piston to the shaft that turns the paddlewheels. The beams and supporting structure were originally constructed of wood and later of iron and steel.
Paddle wheels also varied in design from the fixed paddle wheel to the moveable paddle or feather wheel design. A series of rods and cams in the feather wheel kept the paddles in a vertical position while they were in the water, thereby increasing their efficiency.
Walking beam engines and paddle wheels were eventually replaced in the 1850s by faster, more efficient steam engines developed to turn propellers. However, paddle-wheelers continued to be used into the 1940s on inland waterways.
The 11,000-ton Danish motorship Trein Maersk represented the state-of-the-art in general cargo-handling technology at the time of her construction. Designed for service between the U.S. and ports in the Far East, the ship incorporated such features as refrigerated storage spaces and insulated tanks for the transportation of liquid cargoes like vegetable oils or latex.
The ship’s design placed superstructure aft rather than amidships which allowed for a series of larger, unobstructed cargo holds to be placed forward of the bridge. The multiple booms and derricks facilitated off-loading of break-bulk cargo like crated goods, machinery or bagged commodities.
During the Napoleonic Wars, thousands of French and Spanish sailors spent years in British prison hulks. Many of these men had been conscripted into their countries’ navies leaving behind their peacetime jobs as jewelers, woodworkers, and craftsmen. During their imprisonment they used their skills to while away the hours of captivity. Among the most popular subjects were ship models. The anonymous prisoners had no plans to consult, and only the crudest materials to work with; they made hulls and masts from beef bones and rigging from the hair of sympathetic ladies. While the results left something to be desired in terms of accuracy, the best prisoner-of-war models are truly poignant works of art.
The Beothuk or Red Indians of Newfoundland, Canada were extinct by the early 19th century, however, their canoes had been described by Europeans as early as 1612. Edwin Tappan Adney used the descriptions of explorers and traders, native-made models, and an unusual burial site find of toy canoes to recreate a Beothuk canoe.
Until the 1930’s, Canton’s nightlife on the Pearl River included the Fa-shuen, or flower boats. Such boats offered an evening of entertainment with geishas, song, wine, and games. Other flower boats offered city dwellers a respite from summer heat. For a few coins, an evening ride on a flower boat provided a delightful escape into cooler breezes.
The jangada was a raft-like vessel used by the deep-sea fishermen of Brazil. The vessels were also used on rivers to transport people and cargo.
America’s revolutionary shape, based on a pilot schooner, radically changed the history of yacht design. George Steers, the designer of America, built or commissioned this half model for presentation to Queen Victoria, but it was never presented due to his death in 1856.
The collection of over 600,000 images has given support for research, publications, and exhibits. The photographic collection traces the historical, technological, and artist developments of the medium. The collection includes daguerreotypes, salt prints, ambrotypes, tintypes, stereographs, cyanotypes, cabinet cards, gelatin-silver prints, and recently color-prints. The Museum also has an extensive collection of approximately 20,000 post cards depicting a wide variety of maritime related activities including life saving, harbors and towns, ships portraits and construction, naval ships and deck scenes.
A partial listing of the scope and significance of the collections include:
Edwin Levick came to America in 1899 from London to work as a translator of Arabic for the Guaranty Trust Company in New York City. He soon turned his attention to photography and was supplying his photographic services to the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, and the New York Herald Tribune as well as Rudder and Motorboat Magazine. He began to write for newspapers and photograph for magazines of the day; he eventually decided to specialize in maritime photography. Within a few years, Levick’s successful business had expanded having to employing seven assistants, including Morris Rosenfeld, who would later gain a reputation as a premier maritime photographer in his own right.
In 1929, Levick died at his home at 173 Mount Joy Place at the age of 61 and the peek of career, in New Rochelle, New York. The New Rochelle Standard declared he was the “best known maritime photographer in the nation…. a genuinely artistic soul.” He had lived in New Rochelle for the past fifteen years and was a member of the New Rochelle Yacht Club.
A true son of the Chesapeake, A. Aubrey Bodine was born in Baltimore in 1906. He became interested in photography as a teenager, and at only twenty-one he began working as a photographer for the Baltimore Sun-a professional relationship that would last a half-century. Every week Bodine’s work was featured in the newspaper’s popular Sunday magazine. Whether photographing watermen, cypress trees, or a Maryland power plant, Bodine showed a unique artistic vision and a love of the life and landscape of the Chesapeake Bay throughout his work. His exquisite photographs instantly distinguished him from other photographers and created in their viewers an awareness and keen appreciation of the beauty and diversity of the region.
A natural harbor, Hampton Roads had served the nation as a military port in the Spanish-American War and World War I. During World War II the port headquarters was established in Newport News, Virginia. During this time, the port ranked third in total tonnage after the ports of New York and San Francisco, California. The number of ships that left port during that time numbered 3,294. An astounding 12.5 million measured tons of supplies and equipment and more that 1.6 million troops would move through the facility at the wars end. Brigadier General John R. Kilpatrick, former commanding officer of the Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation, donated more than 150,000 negatives and photographs to The Mariners’ Museum. Created by the United States Army Signal Corps, these images of Hampton Roads’ role in the war have become a poignant visual diary of a nation in time of war.
David Barry was born in Honeoye Falls, New York, March 6,1856. In 1878, David Barry apprenticed with photographer O.S. Goff who had an established business in Bismarck, North Dakota taking photographs of military personnel and Indian subjects. Two years later Barry established himself as a professional photographer. He specialized in photographs of the Sioux Indians involved in the Custer Battle and was nicknamed “The Little Shadow Catcher”.
In 1891, he moved and established a photography studio at 522 Tower Avenue in West Superior, Michigan and began to take photographs of the Great Lakes whalebacks as they were built. By 1892, thirty-one whalebacks were constructed, and of these fifteen were freight steamers, twenty-four were barges, and one passenger steamer, Christopher Columbus. Whaleback construction ended in 1899, but Barry continued to photograph until his death on March 6th, 1936 his eightieth Birthday.
Percy Loomis Sperr was born in Columbus, Ohio in 1889 and gravitated to New York City after college sometime in 1924. An author by choice, he began to illustrate his literary ambitions with photographs and then discovered his photographs were in greater demand than his writing. Sperr sold enough photographs to maintain a livelihood but eventually opened and managed a second hand bookstore until his death in 1964.
Sperr became know as the “official photographer of New York City,” photographing community activities and events. His photographers business card read “A growing collection of over 30,000 views of: New York Harbor; ships; old and modern, Sky-lines, dock scenes, skyscrapers, Old Houses, Foreign Quarters, Pushcarts, Farms, Old New York Scenes.” His chief interest became the waterfront and his photographs often show ship’s mast and harbor scenes juxtaposed in the background seen against the towering city skyline.
This image of inflated animal (possibly goat or sheep) skins being carried to the banks of the Beas River, Bajura, Nepal was taken by British photographer Samuel Bourne. In the 1860’s, British photographer, Samuel Bourne (1834-1912), traveled extensively across India photographing landscapes, historical places and people. The inflated skins would be secured to one another and a small platform placed on the top to form a buoyed raft or “sarnai.” Such rafts have been used in Asia – India, Afghanistan, Tibet, Nepal, China, Iran, Iraq, and Armenia – as a means of transporting people and cargo for thousands of years. Bourne’s dark room tent can be seen under the tree on the left side of the photograph.
Nathaniel Livermore Stebbins was born in 1847 and began photographing around 1887. His documentation of early America’s Cup races includes yacht launchings and construction, shipyard workers, and those who sailed in the early Cup races. In 1899, his photographs were displayed at the International Maritime Exhibition in Boston alongside the work of America’s premier marine artists, including painters William Pierce Stubbs and Antonio Jacobsen. Stebbins was the only photographer represented in the exhibition, attesting to the high esteem in which his work was held.
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The Museum’s collection of navigation instruments rates among the largest and best of the world’s maritime museums. The collection currently holds nearly twelve hundred instruments documenting the development of the art of navigation from the late sixteenth to twentieth centuries. Categories of instruments include navigating, timekeeping, meteorological, surveying, astronomical, magnetic, computing, drawing and drafting, oceanographic, optical and ship’s equipment. The Museums holdings are especially strong in eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries American and European instruments. Its collection of chronometers is particularly strong while the collections of marine barometers and aerial navigation instruments are unsurpassed.
Highlights of the collection include a mid seventeenth century silver coated mariner’s astrolabe, an ebony cross-staff by Hendrik Noordyk,and a circa 1780 octant by Joseph Roux. Of particular note are a marine barometer constructed by Edward Nairne and a circa 1772 chronometer by John Arnold both of which may have made voyages with Captain James Cook.
The Museum also maintains a varied collection of aids to navigation and communicating equipment. Aids to navigation include lighthouse equipment and navigational lights, buoys and channel markers. Communicating equipment includes radio systems, shipboard interior, exterior, and land-based communicating devices. Highlights include the first-order lighthouse lens from the Cape Charles lighthouse and a circa 1925 wireless transmitting and receiving radio by the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company.
The universal equinoctial ring dial was primarily used to determine the time of day. Some instruments could also measure the height of the sun which was useful when trying to determine latitude.
The meridian ring of this dial has a latitude scale divided by 1/2 and numbered by 10s on the front and back (0 to 90 degrees, 90 to 0 degrees). The equatorial ring has an hour ring divided to 2 minute intervals and is numbered with Roman numerals on face and both Roman and Arabic numbers on inner edge. The inner ring pivots perpendicular to outer ring. The bridge attached to the outer ring flips and carries a calendar on one side and zodiac and degree declination scales on the other.
This rare combination of nocturnal and quadrant was used by astronomers to make accurate observations of the heavens for star charts and astrological forecasts. For mariners the instrument was used to determine latitude. The quadrant side of this instrument contains two sights used for sighting Polaris and a degree scale for reading the latitude. Readings were taken from Polaris and adjustments made with calibration tables for errors caused by movement of the star around True North. The instrument is stamped “QUADRANS HORARIUM ADLATIT CRAWD XLIII MXL,” suggesting that it was to be used hourly at latitude 43 degrees.
Before the invention of the chronometer in the eighteenth century, mariners used the nocturnal to tell time at night from the positions of Polaris and its orbiting guard star Kochab.
Theories of celestial navigation can be visualized with the orrery, a miniature planetarium, showing relative motions of the sun, moon, and planets.
This type of sundial was popular with the aristocracy in the seventeenth century. The adjustable styles were engraved with latitude scales from 40 to 60 degrees. This enabled the traveler to align the style with the Earth’s axis and the celestial pole and thus determine accurately the time of day. For a quick reference, the back of this sundial lists European towns and their latitudes.
Although John Harrison is credited with creating the initial marine timekeeper, it is watchmaker John Arnold who perfected and simplified the design and proving beyond a doubt that an accurate timekeeper could be made for use at sea. In 1772, Arnold created a series of timekeepers for use by James Cook during his second voyage to the South Seas. This extremely important Arnold timepiece dates to the same time period and may in fact be one of the instruments used during Cook’s voyage.
The back-staff, or Davis quadrant, was invented in the 1590s by Captain John Davis and had reached its final form by the 1680s. The back-staff eliminated the disadvantages of the cross-staff by allowing the observer to take a sight without looking into the sun. The instrument also simplified the sighting process by allowing the observer to view both the horizon and the shadow of the sun on the horizon vane simultaneously.
A disadvantage of the back-staff was that it could not be used easily for star sights. Despite this limitation, the back-staff remained popular between the years 1600 and 1800. It was the first navigational instrument of any kind produced in America.
The quadrant was the earliest astronomical instrument converted for nautical use. It was used to determine the altitude of the Polestar or sun and, concurrently, the location of the ship in degrees of latitude. Unfortunately, the difficulties of keeping the instrument exactly vertical and preventing the plumb bob from blowing offline on the windy, rolling deck of the ship made its use at sea difficult.
Joseph Roux was a member of the famous Roux family of painters from Marseilles, France. Three generations of the family operated a hydrographic business between the mid-1700s and the 1860s. Gifted both scientifically and artistically, these celebrated craftsmen produced and sold nautical instruments, published maps and charts and painted ship portraits in watercolor.
In the early 1770s, Edward Nairne constructed the first successful marine barometer by constricting the glass tube between the cistern and register plate. The instrument was suspended from gimbals mounted within a freestanding frame to provide additional stability. Nairne’s first marine barometer was sent on James Cook’s second voyage to the South Pacific between 1772-1775. This example may have been used on Cook’s ill-fated third voyage.
Although each form of altitude measuring instrument had special advantages, it was the sextant that ultimately proved to be the most accurate. In 1757, Captain John Campbell, disappointed with the sea trials of the newly conceived reflecting circle, had an octant constructed with its arc extended to one-sixth of a circle so that angles up to 120° could be measured. This was named a “sextant” and its use has continued to the present day.
The cross-staff, like the astrolabe, was used to measure the altitude of the sun or a star above the horizon. At the pinnacle of its development it consisted of a graduated staff with a set of interchangeable vanes that enabled the navigator to measure angles between 10º and 90º. While the cross-staff was an improvement over earlier navigational instruments, it had a few shortcomings of its own; the most problematic being that the navigator had to look directly into the sun to take a reading.
Like the quadrant, the mariner’s astrolabe was a simplified version of its astronomical counterpart and contained only a graduated scale and an alidade. To make it more effective for use at sea, its surface area was reduced by removing excess material at the center of the instrument and its weight was increased. The combined effect of these changes provided greater accuracy than the nautical quadrant making the mariner’s astrolabe the preferred instrument among navigators for nearly three hundred years beginning around 1460 and continuing through 1700.