Starlight’s Abacus

A planispheric astrolabe from the workshop of Jean Fusoris in Paris circa 1400, on display at the Putnam Gallery in the Harvard Science Center

There is a common notion that we are qualitatively more sophisticated than the intellectuals of history, but it isn’t particularly well-founded. We only have the luxury of thinking that because of the head start they’ve given us.

“Astrolabes were among the cleverest instruments thought to have been around in antiquity, and they were calculators of a sort. They were used for solving problems relating to the time and the position of the Sun and stars in the sky, and they were popular until the seventeenth century or so, when increasingly accurate clocks and astronomical tables began to render them obsolete.

The essence of an astrolabe, however, was something that the new technologies could never replace. The name means ‘star catcher’ and it is apt: holding the engraved, metal circle of an astrolabe you have the whole of the heavens in the palm of your hand.”

– Jo Marchant, Decoding the Heavens

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