Astrolabe Links and References
The amount of material about astrolabes on the web has grown significantly in the last few years. Some of the best sites are listed below. It is likely that anyone with an interest in astrolabes is also interested in the history of science, history of time keeping and horology, sundials, medieval science and related topics. The links and references below are just a start. Please send any links you think would be of interest for inclusion here. I have not had a lot of luck with the various search engines but perhaps you will have better success and recommend good links.
Comments on the quality and relevance of the various references are the author's alone. Please let us know if you find a link that no longer works and we will try to update it.
The picture is a 20 koruna (crown) coin from the Czech Republic (thanks to Vit Planocka). To my knowledge, this is the only coin in circulation that features an astrolabe.
Museum of the History of Science at Oxford
The Museum of the History of Science at Oxford has a very extensive set of pages with pictures and descriptions of 88 astrolabes from four European museums. Large images are available for close study. This is a wonderful site and should be visited often. A new and evolving facility is http://www.mhs.ox.ac.uk/astrolabe/ an illustrated and annotated catalog of the astrolabes in the museum's collection.
National Maritime Museum
The National Maritime Museum at Greenwich site include pictures and descriptions of the 54 astrolabes in their collection, some of which are very rare. It is a beautiful site and a must visit.
Institute and Museum of the History of Science, Florence, Italy
The Institute and Museum of the History of Science in Florence has a very rich site with excellent visual material including animated clips showing basic astrolabe functions. There is so much information on this site it can be considered a research source. A newer link to the Museo Galileo with the best astrolabe pictures on the web is http://www.museogalileo.it/en/index.html
François Blateyron offers a shareware program named ShadowsPro that allows you to display and print a planispheric astrolabe and a large variety of sundials. You can set up your astrolabe, print the components and assemble them into a working instrument. François has promised to include universal astrolabes in a future release. ShadowsPro is very easy to use and has an impressive array of functions.
Keith Powell's Java astrolabe
Keith Powell of North Buckinghamshire, England has developed a very impressive interactive Java astrolabe that is great fun to play with if you have a Java enabled browser.
History of Timekeeping home page
This page has MANY links to web pages related to time keeping and its history. Highly recommended.
- North American
NASS is a fundamental source for anyone interested in sundials and related instruments. It is a beautiful site and an indispensable source of basic to advanced information about sundials. The NASS links page includes over 320 sundial related sites.
http://www.sundials.co.uk contains many sundial topics and links to many more.
Cambridge University "Starry Messenger"
Excellent pre-telescopic astronomy overview site.
Chaucer's Astrolabe Treatise
In about 1391, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote an astrolabe treatise addressed to his 10 year-old son, Lewis, which a later scribe with a sense of humor apparently subtitled, "Bread and Milk for Children". It shows a high level of astronomical knowledge for the time and received fairly wide distribution as the first technical manual published in English. The first European treatise on the use of the astrolabe in the vernacular was written in French by Pèlerin de Prusse in 1362, at the request of the Dauphin Charles, later Charles V (reigned 1363-1380). An English translation is Fisher, Robert and Laird, Edgar, Pèlerin de Prusse on the Astrolabe, Medieval & Renaissance Texts and Studies, Binghamton, NY (1995).
Chaucer's Astrolabe Treatise is available in several forms at several sites on the web. This site is, in my opinion, by far the best. It displays a transliteration of the treatise into idiomatic English side-by-side with the original and includes numerous notes to clarify or expand the text. Thanks to NASA Flight Surgeon, Dr. Keith Brandt, for creating it. A valuable companion to the treatise is Chaucer's Universe, Oxford University Press (1988) by John D. North, which provides wonderful detail on the context of the treatise and Medieval cosmology.
The University of Bologna Astronomical Museum has images of two lovely astrolabes.
Montgomery College astrolabe page
This page is provided by Dr. Harold Williams of Montgomery College who is an enthusiastic and innovative astronomy teacher and planetarium director. Dr. Williams is also the host for these astrolabe pages and at I want to thank him publicly for his support of the astrolabe as an astronomy teaching aid.
Gary Agranat's nice list of links to history of science sites.
Richard Paselk's instrument site
Richard Paselk's site has descriptions of several instrument reproductions he has made, including a torquetum, and some guidance on construction. A very useful site for anyone considering making an instrument reproduction.
Following are some of the essential sources and references about astrolabes and their history. Most of them include an extensive bibliography that will point to many other sources. Many informative articles in the scholarly press are not listed but are noted in the bibliographies. Journals that often have astrolabe articles are History of Astronomy, Annals of Science and Isis. Of particular interest to students of Islamic science are the works of Dr. David A. King.
Specific citations are welcome. If you know of a good reference, please send me a note for inclusion.
- Morrison, James E., The Astrolabe, Janus (2007)
This book, by the author of this web site, is not about astrolabes, but is about the astrolabe. That is, it is not about specific instruments, but covers the principles of all types of astrolabes and astrolabe related instruments. Included is the description, history, use and design of planispheric astrolabes, universal astrolabes, astrolabe related quadrants and associated instruments. Click on the link for a more complete description.
- North, J. D., 'The Astrolabe', Scientific American, 230:1, 96-106
This article is the most easily available general reference on astrolabes. It includes a brief history, an overview of the projection used in astrolabe design and some pictures of classical instruments. It is highly recommended as a good, brief, general introduction. John North was one of the most distinguished scholars of medieval astronomy active today and all of his publications are highly recommended. Several are cited below. Of particular interest is the three volume, Richard of Wallingford, Clarendon Press, Oxford, (1976), which is spectacularly complete.
- Webster, Roderick and Marjorie, Western Astrolabes, Adler
Planetarium and Astronomy Museum, 1998. ISBN 1-891220-01-2
This wonderful book documents the European astrolabes in the Adler collection in clear, concise terms. It is an absolutely required element of all astrolabe libraries. See also the Webster astrolabe reproduction below. The late Roderick S. Webster with his wife Marjorie (Madge to her friends and colleagues) were Curators Emeritii of the Adler Planetarium and Astronomy Museum collection of historic scientific instruments. As a team, the Websters were among the world's leading authorities on astrolabes and early scientific instruments. As individuals, the Websters are among the finest people I have ever met and I am honored to call them friends. Madge Webster continues her invaluable contributions to the world of historical scientific instruments in general and the Adler in particular. Their unique knowledge and love of astrolabes is reflected in their book.
- Evans, James, The History and Practice of Ancient Astronomy,
Oxford University Press (1998).
Perhaps the most readable book on ancient astronomy ever published and it has a considerable amount of material on astrolabes.
- The Planispheric Astrolabe, National Maritime Museum,
This booklet from the Old Royal Observatory of the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, England is a good source on how to use a classic astrolabe. It also contains basic notes on the astrolabe projection and pictures of some outstanding classical instruments. It may not be available in libraries so you may have to go to Greenwich to get one. It is worth the trip. I know it is also sold at the Musuem of the History of Science, Oxford.
- Turner, Anthony J., The Time Museum: Time Measuring Instruments.
Part 1. Astrolabes/Astrolabe Related Instruments, The Time Museum,
Rockford, Il, 1985. ISBN 0-912947-02-0.
The stated purpose of this book is to record the astrolabes in the collection of the Time Museum but it is far, far more. It is a wonderful book, beautifully presented and has by far the best historical section of any modern reference. Very highly recommended but not inexpensive. If you buy only one book on astrolabes, this should be the one. The Time Museum has closed, but this book is available from other sources. Another of Turner's books, Early Scientific Instruments, is a wonderful source on early instruments such as astrolabes, sundials, armillary spheres, globes, navigation and surveying instruments. It is probably available from many sources. An excellent source is Celestaire, 416 S. Pershing, Wichita, KS 67218, (800) 727-9785. Celestair sells celestial navigation instruments and books on navigation and its history.
- Gunther, Robert T., Astrolabes of the World. ISBN 0-87556-604-9
(Saifer). originally published by University Press, Oxford (1932).
This two volume work was the first serious attempt to collect astrolabe information into a single source. It was written when Mr. Gunther was curator of the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford. It is a wonderful reference but also, as a seminal work, has errors. It is available at many large libraries or by inter-library loan.
- Gibbs, Sharon with Saliba, George, Planispheric Astrolabes
from the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution
Press, City of Washington (1984).
The book is no longer in print but it might be found through a library. It contains an excellent overview of astrolabe styles from various times and locations along with pictures and descriptions of the astrolabes owned by the Smithsonian. The complete book can be downloaded from:
- Michel, Henri, Traité de L'Astrolabe, Librarie Alain Brieux,
48, Rue Jacob, 75006 Paris (1976).
This book was the only complete reference on the science of the astrolabe for many years after its original publication in 1947, and reprinting in 1976, but has been superceded by later, more complete works. It is no longer in print and it is in French but, if you read French, it is worth the trouble to find a copy. Note also that it was privately published and there are not many copies around. Michel was a Belgian engineer who studied and collected astrolabes for many years and published many articles in addition to this book on their technical aspects. The book covers not only planispheric astrolabes but also all the other types. The publisher operated a shop in Paris that sells the instruments. A complete English translation can be made available to serious students by contacting James E. Morrison, email@example.com.
- Lamprey, John, Hartmann's Practika and Stoeffler's
Elucidatio (with Alessandro Gunella)
John Lamprey's translations of Georg Hartmann's previously unpublished 16th century technical manual for sundials and astrolabes (ISBN 1-931947-00-7) and Johannes Stoeffler's 1553, Elucidatio frabricae ususque astrolabii (ISBN 978-1-4243-3502-2, ISBN 978-1-4243-4132-0) brings the world of the Rennaissance astrolabist to the modern reader, whether student, scholar or interested enthusiast. Stoeffler's astrolabe treatise is a classic, and was the primary source of information on the design and use of astrolabes in the Renaissance. Hartmann's Practika contains heretofore unpublished details on how to design several instruments, including astrolabes with variations, and sundials using classic techniques. Both books are available from Classical Science Press.
- King, David A., In Synchrony with the Heavens. Studies in
Astronomical Timekeeping and Instrumentation in Medieval Islamic Civilization.
Volume Two: Instruments of Mass Calculation, Brill (2005).
This monumental work (1066 pp.) documents a lifetime of historical research by the world's most eminent scholar of Islamic astronomy, including extensive material on Islamic astrolabes and quadrants. It is a fundamental reference for scholars and assumes the reader has extensive background in astronomy and is familiar with pre-telescopic instruments and the history of Islamic astronomy. That being said, it is also a valuable addition to any history of astronomy library and can be read and enjoyed by anyone with interest in the subject. It has the most complete astrolabe bibliography ever compiled and contains a list of all medieval Islamic astrolabes up to ca. 1500, ordered chronologically by region. It also contains a catalogue of all
Islamic astrolabes up to ca. 1100.
There is a certain amount of frustration associated with this book because it will point you down so many interesting paths you will want to learn more, and more, and more...
- King, David A., Astrolabes from Medieval Europe, Variorum Collected Studies (2011).
This new 422 page book contains the key papers on European astrolabes authored by Prof. King over a long and distinguished career. It is a primary source for historians and a "must have" for any student of astrolabes or Medieval astronomy. This volume can be read and enjoyed by anyone with an interest in astrolabes, but some background in both astrolabes and Medieval cosmology would be useful. It contains a list of all known medieval European astrolabes, arranged chronologically by region. As with all of Prof. King's books, it will send you on many pleasant side trips for historical details. It is available from Amazon.com.
- Charette, François, Mathematical Instrumentation in Fourteenth-Century
Egypt and Syria. The Illustrated Treatise of Najm al-Din al-Misri,
Brill, Leiden (2003).
The title of this book may be a bit putoffish for the layman, and it is intended for the professional historian, but that should not deter you from finding a copy. I was particularly impressed by the author's clarity of expression and the background material included is fascinating.
- Neugebauer, Otto A., A History of Ancient Mathematical Astronomy,
Springer-Verlag (1975) (3 vols), Astronomy and History: Selected
Essays, Springer-Verlag (1983) and The Exact Sciences in Antiquity,
These highly respected works are, collectively, a huge source of authoritative information on ancient astronomy and mathematics. They are written at a very high level but are required references for serious study. Of particular interest is 'The Early History of the Astrolabe' from the 'Essays' reference above.
- King, Henry C., Geared to the Stars, University of Toronto
This formidable book is really about astronomical machines including clocks, orrerys and planetarium instruments. It is a wonderful book and has some very interesting examples of astrolabe clock faces and geared astrolabes. It is a book that will be captivating to anyone with an interest in the history of astronomy. I bought a copy at a planetarium bookstore but it should be available from libraries. I often have to take advantage of interlibrary loan services to find books on such obscure subjects. Professor King is also the author of the classic, History of the Telescope.
- Schroeder, Wolfgang, Practical Astronomy. A New Approach to
an Old Science, London, 1956.
This small book should be available from libraries. It is a very interesting approach to making mathematical astronomy understandable to the non-technical person. It contains descriptions of how to make several old astronomical instruments and has a brief section on astrolabes.
- Chaucer, Geoffrey, A Treatise on the Astrolabe, addressed
to his son, Lowys, A.D. 1391, edited by Walter Skeat, London, 1872.
This is the oldest known technical manual in the English language (subject to stylistic differences that have occurred over the last 600 years). Written in about 1391 for 10 year old "little Lowys" who was either his son or the son of a friend, it was later subtitled, "Bread and Milk for Children" by a scribe with a sense of humor. The content is heavy going for an informed adult, much less a child. It is not an easy 'read' but it should be studied by any serious student. It is among the oldest references available, is a complete description of astrolabes as they were made and used in the 14th century and it gives insight into the astrolabe's astronomical and astrological uses. Note that it is not possible to learn much from this treatise without a solid foundation in medieval cosmology. An invaluable companion to complete understanding of this work is Chaucer's Universe by John D. North, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1988. Another companion is, Horoscopes and History, also by John D. North which explains, among other things, the various astrological house systems used in the Middle Ages. The complete Middle English text of the treatise is available on the web as noted above. The Skeat edition cited is available in many libraries.
- van Cleempoel, Koenraad, Astrolabes at Greenwich, Oxford
University Press, Oxford, 2005.
This beautifully presented volume describes the astrolabes in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. It is a very thorough and scholarly work. I was impressed by the scholarship and clarity of the instrument descriptions and, in particular, by the Islamic instrument coverage by François Charette.
- Pingree, David, Eastern Astrolabes, Adler Planetarium
& Astronomy Museum, Chicago, 2009.
A catalog of the Islamic astrolabes in the Adler collection.
- Obscuriosity Shop (http://obscuriosityshop.com)
The Obscuriosity Shop offers high quality reproductions of astrolabes, sundials and navigational tools. In their words, historical curiosities to inspire, educate and amuse. I found them to be very helpful and friendly.