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The instrument with which Henry Sutton is now most often associated is the 'Sutton-type' quadrant, an astronomical calculating device. Although it was very similar to existing quadrants, Sutton promoted it extensively and by the end of the 17th century it was one of the most common astronomical calculating devices.

The Sutton-type quadrant

A Sutton-type quadrant
Image 1: A Sutton-type quadrant, pasted on to brass and varnished. This instrument was made by cutting out one of the plates from John Collins' The Sector on a Quadrant (1658) (Wh.5831).

Henry Sutton (circa 1624-1665) was a versatile member of the mathematical community. Not only was Sutton able to make all of the standard mathematical instruments, he also sold books, and was well enough versed in theoretical matters to collaborate with mathematicians in the design of new instruments. The best known of these is the 'Sutton-type' quadrant (Image 1), which has a projection of the heavens and various scales. The linking of the instrument to Sutton is based on an anonymous 1669 publication, the title of which explains the instrument's uses:

"A description & use of a large quadrant, contrived and made by H. Sutton Accomodated with various lines, for the easie resolving of all astronomical, geometrical, and gnomonical problems, for working of proportions, and for finding the hour universally."

One of Sutton's most important projects was to engrave the plates for John Collins's treatise The Sector on a Quadrant, which was published in 1658 along with the prints of the 'Sutton quadrant'. The book enjoyed an unusual history: in the text Collins admitted that his descriptions did not match up exactly with Sutton's engravings since he had not received them at the time of writing. Further, in the preface he tells the story of his having approached Sutton with a new design for a quadrant, invented by his friend Thomas Harvey. Sutton had the stereographic projection described to him, but was told that he would have to wait a fortnight for a detailed account from Harvey himself. He then proceeded to work out the intricacies of the projection for himself without further aid. Clearly Sutton was at least a competent mathematician, being well versed in dealing with stereographic projections, which were mathematically complex and of some practical difficulty for instrument makers.

Ulterior motives

Collins's real opinion of the book and, indeed, the exact nature of his relationship with Sutton are unclear. He later wrote, in a letter to John Wallis, Savilian Professor of Geometry at Oxford:

"At the request of Mr Sutton I wrote a despicable treatise of quadrants. His design was to demonstrate himself to be a good workman in cutting the prints of those quadrants, and thereby to obtain customers."

In fact, the two men collaborated again in 1659, when Sutton engraved the frontispiece and plates for Collins's Geometric Dialling. Perhaps the promotion of Sutton's work and the publishing of beautifully engraved books was a mutually beneficial arrangement. Also, when viewed as a part of the larger mathematical community, the relationship between Sutton, an artisan, and Collins, a self-made man, is interesting. John Wallis was a much more prominent academic than Collins, so it is possible that when communicating with Wallis, Collins was writing in such a way as to suggest as much distance as possible between himself and the artisan Sutton.

Boris Jardine

Boris Jardine, 'The Sutton-type quadrant', Explore Whipple Collections, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge, 2006

Next Article: Art and Astronomy: Cornelius Varley

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