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Astronomers have always needed instruments, and so there is a vast "material culture" associated with the study of the heavens. Our collection includes telescopes, charts, planetaria, orreries, celestial globes, and many other objects. We also have a small collection of images of astronomers, including a 16th-century miniature portrait of Nicholas Kratzer, astronomer to King Henry VIII.

Below, you will find a selection of articles about instruments used for studying astronomy, illustrated with examples from the Whipple's collections.

Read more at: A Medieval Astrolabe
Detail from a 14th-century English astrolabe, including a bird

A Medieval Astrolabe

The astrolabe was a key astronomical instrument during the Middle Ages. It can be used to tell the time, measure the heights of stars and buildings, and for many other calculations and observations. It works because it is a 2-dimensional representation of the 3-dimensional Universe as understood by the medieval astronomer...

Read more at: Astronomical Compendia
Close-up of one leaf of a 16th century hexagonal astronomical compendium

Astronomical Compendia

An astronomical compendium (plural = compendia) is an instrument that carry numerous devices for telling the time and performing astronomical calculations. Many compendia were made in the German lands in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. They are often beautifully engraved in gilt brass. Typically such compendia...

Read more at: Two Telescopes
A large reflecting telescope, made by William Herschel

Two Telescopes

These two different types of telescope date from a similar time period and were made by important instrument makers. They differ in their methods of focusing distant light from the stars: one uses lenses to refract (bend) incoming light, the other has mirrors to reflect light.

Read more at: The 'Grand' Orrery
Detail from the grand orrery showing several planets and their satellites

The 'Grand' Orrery

An orrery is a moving model of the motions of the Earth, Moon, and Sun. Orreries can be used to demonstrate phenomena such as day and night, the seasons, lunar phases, and eclipses. A candle may be placed in the centre to represent the light of the Sun. Larger orreries often include additional planets and their...

Read more at: A Projecting Planetarium
Detail from the face of the projecting planetarium showing part of the mechanism and some of the planets

A Projecting Planetarium

In April 2005 the Whipple Museum acquired a planetarium for use with a candle or lamp, which projects an image of the planets onto a wall. We don't know who made it and no contemporary catalogue or text describing it has been found. By examining the planetarium closely, we can suggest what astronomical phenomena it was...

Read more at: Armillary Spheres and Teaching Astronomy

Armillary Spheres and Teaching Astronomy

Armillary spheres are models of the universe. They have been used since antiquity, but very few survive from before the 16th century. The Whipple Museum has one very early example, though dating it accurately is extremely difficult. Some armillary spheres were used for observing the heavens and some, like this one, were...

Read more at: The King's Astronomer
Detail from the portrait of Nicholas Kratzer, showing the incorrectly drawn armillary sphere

The King's Astronomer

Nicholas Kratzer (b. 1486/7, d. after 1550) was astronomer and astrologer to King Henry VIII. He was also an instrument maker, and is thought to have collaborated with Hans Holbein the Younger (1497/8-1543), one of the most important artists of the 16th century, who included complex instruments in a number of his works...

Read more at: A Ship-Shaped Sundial
Detail of the ship-shaped sundial, showing the initials 'S.F.'

A Ship-Shaped Sundial

This instrument (Image 1) is a small sundial shaped like a ship, made in 1620, probably in England. It tells the time by measuring the angle of the Sun above the horizon, and it can be adjusted for use at any time of year and for places at different latitudes. It would have been very useful for merchants and travellers who...

Read more at: Short's Telescope
A James Short telescope

Short's Telescope

James Short was one of the most prolific telescope makers of the 18th-century. A handwritten instruction sheet, probably by Short himself, accompanies one of his telescopes. His career as an astronomer included many observations of comets, transits of Venus, and the Northern Lights.

Read more at: The 'Incomparable' Mr. Sutton
Printed paper quadrant

The 'Incomparable' Mr. Sutton

The Whipple Museum owns nine instruments by Henry Sutton, an instrument maker and prominent member of the 17th-century mathematical community. He was described just after his death as "that incomparable Instrument maker". He is best known for the 'Sutton-type' quadrant, an astronomical device made in collaboration with the...

Read more at: Art and Astronomy: Cornelius Varley
Cornelius Varley's graphic telescope, c.1840

Art and Astronomy: Cornelius Varley

An instrument maker and artist, Cornelius Varley came from a talented family. In the early 19th century he invented an instrument called the graphic telescope (Image 1), which allowed accurate drawings of any subject. The graphic telescope was used by Varley himself to record astronomical events, and sketch portraits and...

Read more at: Maps of the Heavens
Boxwood sector showing a representation of the heavens

Maps of the Heavens

Many early-modern astronomical instruments - including sundials, quadrants, and astrolabes - carry maps of the heavens. An important method for drawing such star maps is called stereographic projection , the plotting of 3 dimensions onto 2 dimensions. Such projections allow complex astronomical calculations to be made...

Read more at: Glass Monograph
Engraving of Venice by Giacomo Franco

Glass Monograph

On this page, readers can download a copy of Anita McConnell's research monograph, A Survey of the Networks Bringing a Knowledge of Optical Glass-Working to the London Trade, 1500-1800. The Whipple Museum is delighted to be able to make this important work widely available for the first time, as a free pdf download.