The mariner's astrolabe: an iconic instrument

The mariner's astrolabe: an iconic instrument

Of the various instruments European navigators took on board their ships to measure celestial altitudes, the most iconic was the so-called mariner’s astrolabe.

Vasco da Gama carried a small brass astrolabe on his famous voyage around the Cape of Good Hope to India in 1497–9, together with a larger wooden one, which could be mounted on a tripod for more accurate measurements on land. Christopher Columbus also carried an astrolabe and a quadrant on his famous transatlantic voyage of 1492, although he had difficulty using them on his pitching and rolling ship.

This famous image, from the Nova Reperta of Johannes Stradanus, shows Amerigo Vespucci holding a mariner’s astrolabe as he sets foot for the first time on the shores of the New World. But the mature design of the instrument he is holding was more likely the consequence of the experience of navigating the high Atlantic during the 1490s.

Commentary. Howard Hotson (May 2021)