The Adler Planetarium is home to one of the world's greatest collections of historic instruments. The collection documents nine centuries of human effort to understand and explore the Universe, and to design and build tools that have brought us closer to the sky.
The Adler Planetarium holds one of the largest collections of astrolabes in the world. This is the oldest astrolabe (and in fact, the oldest artifact!) in the Adler's collections. The main parts of the instrument were made in Baghdad in 1130-1. The astrolabe was the most sophisticated scientific instrument of the Middle Ages and could be used to find the time, find directions, and in several other operations.
The Time in Your Pocket
Dated to around 1480, this is one of the earliest known examples of an ivory sundial from Nuremberg, Germany. These portable sundials are generally known as diptychs, meaning that they are formed by two hinged tablets. This example is decorated with a scene from the Flagellation of Jesus.
A Sundial for Pilgrims
This diptych sundial was made in 1513 by Erhard Etzlaub (1455-1532), a German cartographer who printed maps for pilgrims showing the routes to Rome. This sundial includes a map showing Europe and the North of Africa, which could be used to help a traveler set the instrument for their current location.
A Very Rare Astrolabe
This exceptionally rare sixteenth-century astrolabe is one of the few known examples showing Hebrew inscriptions. It was likely made for a Jewish owner living in Europe. The astrolabe is labeled in Hebrew and also contains Arabic written with Hebrew characters.
A Printed Sky
This celestial globe dates to 1551 and was produced by Gerard Mercator (1512-1594), famous for the map projection with his name. The globe is formed by twelve printed segments (called “gores”) and two polar caps pasted to a sphere. Apart from a few additions, the constellations shown in this globe are part of a core set of constellations originating in Mesopotamia and Ancient Greece, most of them are still in use today.
In search of VC
Who made this astronomical compendium? For now, nobody knows. A compendium combines several instruments (including sundials and other time-finding devices) into a single piece; sort of like the Swiss army knife of astronomical instruments. This example bears the date 1557 and is signed with the initials "VC". But the identity of “VC” remains a mystery.
Punctual to the Bone
This sixteenth-century sundial in the shape of a cross was probably made for a bishop. It doubles as a reliquary, purportedly containing bone fragments of four saints. It also includes a tiny wooden cross, which at the time was likely believed to be made from true pieces of the Holy Cross.
The Universe in Your Hands
This armillary sphere was made by the prominent instrument maker Gualterus Arsenius (c. 1530 -c. 1580), who lived and worked in Louvain (Belgium). It is a highly sophisticated model of the old Earth-centered theories of the Universe, and doubles as an exquisite decorative piece, combining the art and science of its time at the highest level.
Everything in Proportion
This proportional compass (an instrument for mathematical operations) was designed and made by the Renaissance mathematician Fabrizio Mordente (1532 - c. 1608). Proportional compasses of various types remained in use until the nineteenth century.
The Many Faces of Time
This twenty-six-faced polyhedral sundial dates from the last decades of the sixteenth century. It is composed of twenty sundials of various types and was essentially a showpiece. Renaissance and early-modern mathematicians and instrument makers engaged in the design and making of complex sundials as a way of boasting their knowledge and skill.
An Affordable Celestial Computer
This astrolabe dates from 1622 and is a rare surviving example containing paper and wooden parts. Astrolabes were normally made of brass, and expensive. Instruments with printed parts were much cheaper, making the astrolabe accessible to students, mathematicians, and astrologers living on a budget. It also means they were more prone to damage, and more likely to be discarded over time, making examples like this extremely rare.
Back from the Depths
This mariner’s astrolabe was made in Portugal in 1616 and is part of a group of five instruments retrieved from the shipwreck of the "Nuestra Señora de Atocha", which sank off the Marquesas Keys (20 miles from Key West) in 1622. The mariner's astrolabe was widely used by navigators in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to find the latitude at sea, but only around 100 survive today.
The Oldest Telescope in America
This is the oldest telescope in America, and in fact, the oldest telescope located outside of Europe. It was made sometime around 1630-40 in Italy, and is part of a group of twenty telescopes known or presumed to having been made before 1650. The earliest documented demonstration of a telescope dates to 1608, making this one of the few surviving representatives of the first generation of telescopes ever made.
A Brass Universe
This celestial globe was made in Lahore (nowadays in Pakistan) around 1650. Lahore was an important center of instrument making during the Mughal Empire, which brought a large area of the Indian subcontinent under the influence of Persian culture. The classical constellations from Antiquity are engraved on the surface of a hollow and seamless brass sphere, which is typical of Islamic celestial globes. The figures used for the constellations represent the influence of Mughal aesthetics and culture.
A One-of-a-Kind Globe
This very unique and rare celestial sphere was made in Lahore around 1680. The constellations are cutout on two hemispheres joining along the equator, rather than engraved on the surface of a solid brass sphere, as would be the norm for globes produced in the same region and period. An inscription on the sphere suggests that a terrestrial globe once occupied its center. There are over a thousand stars depicted on this sphere!
An Eclipse Computer
This exquisite and unusual instrument is presented as an "eclipseometrum" - a device to predict eclipses and perform calendar calculations. Eclipse prediction required a solid knowledge of the cycles of the Moon, which was equally fundamental to set the date of Easter. This instrument was designed to render these operations easier.
The World in Your Pocket
Pocket globes were very popular in the eighteenth century. They typically comprised a terrestrial globe within a round, hinged case showing the Northern and Southern constellations on the inside. They are called pocket globes because they would have literally been carried around in the owner's pocket, to be used in lectures or social gatherings. In this rare example, the hollow Earth further opens, revealing an even smaller armillary sphere.
The First Mechanical Solar System
This is the first orrery, or mechanical model of the solar system, ever made. The clockmaker George Graham (1673-1751) seemingly designed and assembled this piece between 1704 and 1709 as a prototype for a similar instrument now in the collections of the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford. This orrery shows the Sun-Earth-Moon system only. Similar instruments presenting all known planets were much appreciated throughout the eighteenth century.
When this orrery was made around 1740, the farthest planet known to exist was Saturn. Uranus, discovered in 1781 by William Herschel (1738-1822), was added later under the name Georgium Sidus, meaning “George’s Planet”. Herschel proposed this name as homage to King George III of England, but obviously it did not stick.
Telescope for a King?
This telescope was possibly made for King Louis XV of France. It is a fine example of a Gregorian reflecting telescope. This type of telescope was popular among eighteenth-century teachers and lecturers, and favored by the affluent society of the period as a tool of scientific amusement.
A Telescopic Extravaganza
Ivory telescopes are quite rare; only ten examples are known to exist. This is the largest and most spectacular one of these ten. It testifies not only to the seventeenth-century fascination with the telescope as an optical instrument, but also to a time when turning ivory with a lathe was a craft appreciated, sometimes even practiced, by royals and nobles.
The Tool that Changed Navigation
This is one of five surviving sextants made by the English instrument maker John Bird (1709-1776), the inventor of the sextant.
Bird developed the nautical sextant in the 1750s with the purpose of finding longitude at sea from observations of the Moon. The maritime chronometer invented by John Harrison (1693-1776) eventually replaced this method. But sextants have remained in use to this day.
Suited to Find Planets
This reflecting telescope was made by William Herschel, who is mainly remembered for his discovery of Uranus in 1781. Herschel was using a similar instrument when he first spotted Uranus in the sky. He initially thought it was a comet, but further investigations by him and other astronomers confirmed it was a planet.
The Persistence of Time
This perpetual calendar dates from the eighteenth-century. It combines several printed, movable parts. When properly assembled and used, they revealed the day of the week, the positions of the Sun and the Moon in the sky, and other astronomical elements for a given date. Perpetual calendars were designed to function for many years, hence their name.
A Blast at Midday
This cannon dial combines a horizontal sundial with a noon gun. The sun's rays are focused on powder sprinkled in the cannon's touchhole. The gun blast informed passersby that it was local noon - and possibly frightened those unaware of its origin and purpose. Cannon dials were very popular from the late eighteenth century through the nineteenth century.
Empire in the Sky
This star map dates to around 1826 and shows traditional constellations from China. These constellations mirrored life in the Chinese Empire. Everything in the sky revolved around the North Star, just like everything on Earth revolved around the Emperor. Each constellation (normally formed by just a few stars) represented some aspect of imperial, social, and rural life - from the emperor’s throne and his entourage, to something as mundane as a toilet.
A Tool for Stargazers
This star finder dates to 1871. It is one of several models designed and sold by the North-American publisher Henry Whitall. Before today's mobile devices and astronomy cell phone apps, beginner stargazers resorted to using star finders like this in order to identify their first stars and constellations.
Saved by a Book Cover
This Command Module Service Malfunction Manual saved the Apollo 13 crew. It did not tell what to do in case the spacecraft's oxygen tanks exploded during space flight, but when faced with that occurrence, astronauts James Lovell, Jack Swiggert, and Fred Haise used the manual's cover to improvise a system that removed excess of carbon dioxide from the air, keeping them alive. The cover is now missing, which exposes a caricature drawn on the first page of the manual.
Thank you to the staff of the Adler Planetarium, and to photographer Steve Pitkin, for their assistance in creating these images of our collection and this exhibition.
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