In Search of a Astrolabe

At the Gulf Museum

Port aux Basques, Newfoundland, Canada

August 30th, 2001

Having taken the great ferry ride out of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, we arrived in Port aux Basques, Newfoundland minus our trailer. We had decided to make the tour of the island by Bed and Breakfast type Inns. Here, I was given an opportunity to follow up on one of my many hobbies. For years I have studied, played with and sometimes actually used all those neat nifty navigational instruments and devices that make finding your way around on a map or chart possible even in the most difficult of situations. Ocean navigation is almost as old as man, however, until the invention of the compass, most sea going vessels remained within sight of land to prevent becoming lost. The compass opened up the world and ships were soon venturing out in all directions. This created a strong desire for captains to be able to somehow know where in the world they were, especially after being without the sight of land for days. One of the first devices to aid in that problem was called an Astrolabe. This simple device was the early forerunner of the sextant. While in Nova Scotia I had heard that one of these ancient devices had been discovered in Newfoundland and was now on display in a museum somewhere. On our second day in Port aux Basques we were told by our host that the instrument was actually in a small museum right in town. Little museum was right. We found the small Gulf Museum building quite by accident while driving around the town. We knew we were in the right area when we saw the bigger then life mockup of an astrolabe. I wandered over to get the obligatory record photo for bragging rights before venturing across the street to the building itself. Inside we found a very friendly caretaker who had volunteered to keep the place open after the college kids had departed for school. We were given the run of the place. There were two floors which contained an assortment of old items pretty much a product of daily life in and around the town. There was an old time diving suit complete with all the intricate pumping equipment required to keep a person safely walking around on the bottom of the ocean. I had seen these suits used in sponge fishing elsewhere but had never actually gotten up close to the whole thing. There was also a stuffed representative of the Province's bird. the Puffin. A cold water creature with a very distinctive beak that frequents the rocks along the coastline. In the middle of the first floor, not particularly protected by anything sat the object of our quest, the newly discovered astrolabe. This one was made in 1603 as indicated by a stamped date pressed into it. Mariners used astrolabes and other navigational aids to find their way safely and surely across the sea. They were used to measure latitude or how far north or south the ship was sailing. Navigators suspended the astrolabe by its string and looked along the movable sighting rule until the sun or sometimes the pole star was aligned through the holes in both the upper and lower sighting vanes. The angle of the sun or the star above the horizon or below the zenith was read from the astrolabe scale. The latitude was calculated from tables. The astrolabes were usually made out of a heavy metal such as brass or bronze. Their styles varied with the maker and their country of origin. It has always been a delight to me to find some small seemingly secret item tucked away in dusty halls that bring to light a point in history almost forgotten. I marked it as a good day indeed.

***THE END ***