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Taking the Stars with Peter Ifland

As a museum we deal with a lot of wonderful donors, but few make as big of an impact as Peter Ifland. So when we learned that he passed away on May 20, we were devastated. Peter has been involved with The Mariners’ Museum since 1996 while consulting with Willem F.J. Mörzer Bruyns, who was at the time curator of navigation at Nederlands Scheepvaartmuseum. Bruyns invited Peter to The Mariners’ Museum to attend a symposium on navigational and scientific instruments. Peter then worked with museum staff to publish the book Taking the Stars: Celestial Navigation from Argonauts to Astronauts in 1998. This was followed by numerous donations over the years of Peter’s extensive instrument collection, totaling 154 pieces, many of which can be found in his book. Besides these donated pieces, he also gave us the funds to purchase other instruments.

Because of Peter’s generosity, it has been said that our collection of navigating instruments “ranks among the world’s largest and most significant of its kind” (Bruyns). And so I wanted to share some highlights from the collection to honor Peter.

The first piece is a beveled scale pentant made by Jesse Ramsden of London, ca 1795. It was one of the last instruments Ramsden made as he passed away in 1800. It is thought that this instrument is possibly the pinnacle of scale division, with its accuracy and precision. In the last half of the 18th century, Ramsden was one of three English instrument manufacturers noted for their skill in scale division, with John Bird (1709-1774) and Edward Troughton (1753-1836). This is why the piece was one of Peter’s favorites.

The above piece was another favorite of Peter’s. It is a Davis back-staff with the marking “Made by Walter Henshaw For John Lock 1711”. That makes it one of the oldest (possibly the oldest) known dated British back-staffs. And this is a case where if anyone reading this knows of an older dated piece, we would love to have that information. The back-staff is 25″ long and possibly made of rosewood with a fine patina throughout. The signature is punched on the long arm with a few decorative fleur-de-lys, Tudor rose and star punches, as well as outlining throughout.

The interesting piece above is a double sextant made by Ebenezer Hoppé of London, ca 1804. The double sextant was Hoppé’s answer to measuring large angles. The main scale has a radius of 8-1/2” and is divided to 150° with a functional range of 125°. The second scale is divided from 0° from +/- 120°, creating a theoretical range of 365°. The piece really wouldn’t have been able to measure over about 240° because the light from the index mirror would be reflected into the horizon mirror over that degree. Hoppé’s instruments weren’t as successful as he hoped and he had to file for bankruptcy in June of 1811. Peter was very interested in the way that scientific and navigational instruments developed, and so he collected a number of pieces that would seem odd because they weren’t as successful or as widely used.

This next gorgeous piece is a brass Persian astrolabe, made by Hâjjî ‘Alî of Kerbala, ca 1790. The planispheric astrolabe could be used to find time, as a direct-measure instrument by surveyors, topographers and navigators, to simplify astronomical calculations and, in the case of this instrument, to facilitate the calculations that must be performed to determine the exact time for prayer. This astrolabe was bought in Baghdad in the early 1890’s and was said to have come from Kerbala. It is well-made, accurately engraved and attractively decorated, and example of the continuation into Qajar Persia of the fine tradition for elaborate astrolabes associated with the astrolabes of the Safavid period. The maker, Hâjjî ‘Alî, is probably unique among astrolabe-makers in numbering his work: of the fourteen astrolabes made by him which have been recorded, ten are numbered, from No. 2 made in A.H. 1203 (A.D. 1788/9) to No. 24, which is not dated (No. 16, the latest of the seven dated astrolabes is from the year A.H. 1210 (A.D. 1795/6). Ours is marked as work 3.

This last piece (one of my favorites) is a more recent by donation by Peter and is a sextant made ca 1830-1839. What makes this piece so fantastic is its Royal background. It was presented as a gift to Prince Ferdinand Philippe, Duke of Orleans by Captain de Courtigis, which is evident from the inscription on the piece. Despite it being a finely crafted piece, there is no maker’s mark. Capitaine de Courtigis, who is recorded in the Garde Royale, served in 1830 in an infantry division stationed at the Petit-Luxembourg, near the heart of power in Paris. At the same time he is recorded as a member of the French geologic society. He invented a system of extremely rapid and efficient setting up and breaking down a military camp site in a matter of minutes; this was demonstrated in the presence of the Duke of Orleans in 1837. The latter, the recipient of this instrument, was undoubtedly Ferdinand Philippe, who held this title from 1830 to 1842, and whose father was King of France, himself heir to the throne. Ferdinand Philippe had attended the Ecole Polytechnique, and had a brilliant military career. He was a true lover of the arts and furnished the palace with an important collection of fine and decorative arts. This piece remained in royal hands until about six years ago, when it went up for auction with a number of other pieces, allowing us to obtain and preserve it for future generations (Hooray!).

We are so grateful to Peter for his donations and support throughout the years, and he will definitely be missed. His legacy and love of instruments will continue to live on through his research and collection, of that we will make sure.

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