• Rethinking the Spherical Astrolabe

    SIS Grant Holder Taha Yasin Arslan (Istanbul Medeniyet University, Turkey), explains how his funding helped him discover more about this unusual instrument from the Islamic world.

    Spherical Astrolabe, by Mūsā, Eastern Islamic, 1480/81, MHS Oxford, inv. no. 49687.

    The spherical astrolabe is one of the most mysterious astronomical instruments in the history of instrumentation. Until a fully functional one surfaced in an auction in 1962 and was acquired by the History of Science Museum, University of Oxford (HSM), the reality of this type of instrument as a practical device was uncertain. Its use was only known through descriptions in historical texts. Although parts of another spherical astrolabe are now known to exist, the HSM version is complete and remains unique.

    About 8 cm in diameter, this instrument was dated 885 Hijra (1480/81 CE) by an instrument maker simply signed as ‘Mūsā’. Spherical astrolabes are universal in nature and can be used at any latitude but the unequal hour markings below the horizon on the mater indicate that this instrument was made to be used around 41-degrees latitude, which usually corresponds with Istanbul. Coincidentally, there is an unsigned treatise on the use of spherical astrolabes that was copied in either Istanbul or Edirne around the 1450s or 1460s that is preserved in the Suleymaniye Library’s Hamidiye Collection (no. 1453). The goal of my research was to provide tangible evidence, if possible, between the Hamidiye text and the HSM instrument. I began my journey by examining the Hamidiye text and took notes about the detailed descriptions of the instrument. I then visited HSM for examination of the instrument. With the help of Dr. Stephen Johnston, head of research, teaching, and collections at HSM, I had the chance to thoroughly examine the spherical astrolabe and to compare my notes on both the written and physical instruments.

    From this research, I can confidently say that the HSM astrolabe was made with only artistic intentions, most likely as a demonstration tool to show what a spherical astrolabe looks like and how it operates. The small size of the instrument, the choice of not-so-bright stars to form a symmetry on the rete, and lack of an alidade that can be used for stars makes the instrument visually appealing but impractical for observations. The instrument that is described in the Hamidiye text, however, is much more accurate and functional for both observations and calculations. It is hard to imagine that the author of this text constructed or commissioned a much less accurate instrument such as the HSM astrolabe. I will conclude my research by examining some small details in the text on the use of the instrument to further define if there are some similarities and/or connections between the text and instrument.



  • Paper Instruments in the History of Ottoman Astronomy

    Gaye Danişan Polat from the Department of the History of Science, Istanbul University provides us with an overview of her research which has been funded by a grant from the SIS. Full details to follow in a subsequent issue of the Bulletin.

    The importance of using paper instruments during the Ottoman period remains unexplained because there are few surving examples to help us understand their role in the history of Ottoman astronomy. To date there are still several important questions that need to be answered: When were paper instruments first used by Ottoman astronomers? Which style of paper instruments were used? Who used them? Were they widely used across the Ottoman world? Were the paper instruments used for education or actual calculations?

    This study aims to clarify the purpose of using paper instruments in the Ottoman world by assessing the following surviving examples in the astronomical literature: the first example is a calendar with the title of Ruzname-i Şeyh Vefa (replicated by Ibrahim Shahidi ibn Khoudaï Dede in 1676, BnF supplément turc 537). It includes a paper instrument with two moving circles (volvelles) representing the positions of the Sun and Moon (folio 6). Composed of a series of concentric circles, this instrument enabled the user to perform calculations relating to the age and phase of the Moon, lunar mansions and eclipses (both solar and lunar). The second example (Fig. 1, below) is also a calendar in the Kandilli Observatory (MS 540, copied A.H.1134/1721-22 A.D) made of cardboard by Derviş Mehmed el-Hasib el-Mevlevi (d.1709) who was a muwaqqit (timekeeper). There is a gurrename on the top right corner, and also circles & semicircles featuring the names of planets, zodiac signs, fixed stars, and information about the climates, zodiac, and winds.

    Fig. 1: Derviş Mehmed el-Hasib el-Mevlevi, Takvim, Kandilli Observatory, MS 540, 1 folio, copied in hijri 1134.
    Fig. 2: serko haritası, from: Navigasyon, compiled by Halil Efendi, Mekteb-i Bahriye-i Hazreti Şahane Tabanesi, 19 Ocak 1857, plate 8.

    The third example (Fig. 2) is an Ottoman book on navigation entitled Navigasyon (1857) which features a serko haritası which is equivalent to a quartier de reduction (sinical quadrant) used among French mariners. We can assume that this printed paper instrument was used for pedagogical purposes since the Navigasyon was written for students at the Naval School (Mekteb-i Bahriye). Finally, there are also a few examples mounted on wood that can be to use as surviving instrument like cylindrical sundial, qıblanuma, quadrant. This project will contribute to our understanding of the use and role of paper instruments within the history of Ottoman astronomy.

    Note: For more detailed information about serko haritası in the Ottoman Empire see: Danışan Polat G., “Osmanlı Denizcileri ve Serko Haritası (Quartier de réduction)”, in: Osmanlı Bilimi Araştırmaları/Studies in Ottoman Science, XVIII/1 (2016), pp. 1-25.



  • From Pharmaceutical Innovation to Public Engagement: Stephen Carter and the Micrarium in Buxton

    by Viviane Quirke

    In 1981, a new kind of museum opened in Buxton’s old Pump Room. It was the ‘Micrarium’, created by Dr Stephen Carter, who had previously been involved in cancer research at ICI’s Pharmaceutical Research Centre in Cheshire. The Micrarium’s ambition was to make the microscopical world, which Carter had explored in his work for ICI, more readily accessible to the wider public. For this Carter developed a remote-controlled projection microscope and, with the help of his wife Janet and their three daughters, made 50 versions of it in their home workshop in time for the opening. After winning an award from the British Tourist Authority and receiving a Museum of the Year Award, the Micrarium became the first recipient of a grant from the Fund for the Development of Interactive Science Centres. It also received acclaim from professional microscopists, who praised both the clarity of the image and the depth of field obtained with the Micrarium’s microscopes. However, Carter’s premature death in 1987, after which his widow Janet ran the Micrarium until she retired in 1995, and the eventual displacement of the apparatus used in the Micrarium by digital technology, led to the ultimate demise, not only of the Micrarium itself, but of its very idea as a museum.

    Little is known about this short-lived ‘World First’ use of microscopes in a dedicated museum setting, which through the Carters bridged a gap between scientific innovation and public engagement. Thanks to a generous grant from SIS, I was able to visit Janet Carter in Cheshire in order to interview her and other members of the family, examine the private collection of papers and other materials held by them, and go to Buxton to see the old Pump Room as well as visit the local library.

    What this research revealed, was how Carter adapted the microscope and associated technologies to fit its change of purpose and location. Carter and his family also had to develop and mobilise both personal and professional networks, as well as acquire new skills, in a way that challenged the boundary between amateur and professional science. However, despite an apparently favourable social and cultural context, the Micrarium experienced difficulties as well as successes, at a time when public engagement was becoming big business, with multiple constituencies and expanding support, but also with growing competition for resources.


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