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Medieval Astronomy Tool Acquired By British Museum

July 31, 2008

The British Museum will maintain possession of a rare astronomy tool from the 14th-century that helped scientists tell time after being outbid for the item last year.

The astrolabe quadrant is a brass device that was selling at an auction last year, but the museum was initially lost out on its purchase. But money from the National Heritage Memorial fund, The Art Fund and the British Museum Friends helped the museum purchase it recently for 350,000 pounds ($700,000).

“The quadrant will be a very important addition to our medieval collection as an object which can explain the sophistication of science in the Middle Ages and the transfer of knowledge between Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities,” said deputy director of the British Museum, Andrew Burnett.

The device, which is in the shape of a quadrant, or quarter of a circle, was designed to be portable and has a radius of 3 inches (77 millimeters). The instrument was used to calculate the height of the sun. With that information, a scientist could determine the time, date and other calculations.

Silke Ackermann, the British Museum’s curator of European and Islamic scientific instruments, said the eagle engraved on this astrolabe indicates it was to be used with the sun rather than with the stars, because the eagle was believed to be the only animal able to look directly into the sun.

Islamic scientists were said to have created the astrolabe in the 9th century after learning about the concept from studying ancient Greek science. The devices were later adopted by Europeans in the 10th century and were used through the 1600s.

The museum said eight astrolabe quadrants are known to exist from the Middle Ages, but the British Museum’s instrument is the only one created for use in England. It was found in an archaeological dig in 2005 in Canterbury, in southeast England.

The device will be on display at the British Museum starting in early August.

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