Have you ever wondered what that complicated-looking gadget was in your favourite TV show? Or seen some powerful device in a film and pondered how it got there, or been spell-bound by an enchanting description in a novel? Dr Silke Ackermann and Dr Stephen Johnston from the History of Science Museum are here to tell us how the story of real devices can be every bit as dramatic and emotionally charged as those in fiction.
Astrolabes (‘star-takers’) are fascinating instruments for taking analogue readings of astronomy – latitude, altitude, surveying, time conversions, triangulating – which have been used from classical times through Western medieval and Islamic history. They are usually made of flat, overlaid circular plates which can be rotated to show the position of celestial bodies. We are shown one beautiful example with a very intricate network of overlapping strap-work, minute engraving, and tiny, gilt shooting stars. On the top-piece there’s a dedication to Elizabeth I, and etched on the interior is the designer’s name and the year 1559. We can infer from the Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I, in which she is portrayed with her right hand resting on a globe, that these technological advances were important symbols of power – we might not have evidence that the queen actually used an astrolabe, but it’s possible that this one was a gift to her from Robert Dudley, her long-time suitor.
These instruments can be symbolically important on screen as well – think of the astrolabes and armillary spheres in Dumbledore’s study in the Harry Potter films, which are never used but convey a sense of learnedness, of knowledge that others don’t have. But if they’re used they have to be accurate. If you’re reading this you probably know of Oxford’s own Philip Pullman and the His Dark Materials series of novels and their screen adaptations. In these works the alethiometer is a compass-like symbol reader, with hands which point to a series of symbols whose combinations give meanings and prophecies. The basis for this device came from astrolabes – in fact, one of the DVD extras on 2008’s The Golden Compass showcases the Museum’s own collection. But in the BBC’s 2019 adaptation of His Dark Materials the alethiometer is square – did their researchers come to the Museum and find something else, a different instrument for inspiration?
We are also shown an example of an astronomical compendium from 1568, an intriguing box-like device which also contains various devices for astronomical calculations. This one – only a few inches long – has a series of delicate hand-clasps which unlock and reveal a tiny compartment. On the front is a complicated engraving of a tree and an image of a nightingale, an emblem used by the Elizabethan engraver Richard Jugge. Perhaps in this symbol we are seeing the genesis of Pullman’s daemons, physical manifestations of one’s inner-self taking the form of an animal.
Dr Ackermann and Dr Johnston were warm and enthusiastic presenters and this was a very entertaining talk linking modern culture to some of the Museum’s most precious artefacts. Keep an eye out for more talks in their regular series, or visit for a look round some of the extensive collection – you might find your own creative inspiration, or even bump into some BBC researchers looking for suitable instruments to represent an amber spyglass or a subtle knife...