Institute for the History of Science, Johann Wolfgang Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main



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Introductory Remarks

A catalogue of medieval Islamic and European astronomical instruments is currently being prepared at the Institute for the History of Science at Frankfurt University. It is hoped that this catalogue will serve as a useful research tool by providing critical descriptions of all historically-significant instruments, arranged according to provenance and type. The total number of instruments included in the catalogue will be about 550 astrolabes (some 300 Islamic and 250 European) and 250 quadrants, sundials and other instruments.

The project has progressed thanks to the generous support of the German Research Organization (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, see www.dfg.de) during 1992-96 and 1999-2002. Further funding will be needed to finish the catalogue.

The basic philosophy behind the preparation of the catalogue is that it is essential to hold the instrument in one’s hands, to take it apart, to examine each part carefully – in short, to play with it for a while – in order to begin to understand it properly. Photographs are inadequate for this purpose, but in some cases it must suffice. One may need to examine some details with a magnifying glass, or even a microscope. The task for the unsigned and undated instruments is then to relate them to a school or a period. Again it is particularly useful, but rarely possible, to examine related instruments together.

Important collections have already been visited and most of the early Islamic and European instruments inspected and described. A substantial amount of the basic descriptive work (perhaps two-thirds of the total required) has been carried out. The planned critical analysis of this vast corpus of material can only be conducted when more of the descriptive work has been completed. Good-quality photographs are already available for only about one-fifth of the instruments, but about four-fifths have been studied, mainly by inspecting the actual instruments and in some cases using published or unpublished photographs.

The catalogue is arranged according to the following general categories (* indicates that only selected instruments will be treated in detail), the organization throughout being chronological by region.

1. Early Eastern astrolabes;

2. Late Eastern astrolabes*;

3. Eastern quadrants;

4. Eastern sundials;

5. Miscellaneous Eastern instruments*;

6. Early European astrolabes (to ca. 1500);

7. Late European astrolabes (to ca. 1600)*;

8. Early European quadrants;

9. Early European sundials;

10. Miscellaneous early European instruments*.

Numerous fakes will be featured in the catalogue, and carefully distinguished as such. On the other hand, several instruments generally regarded as fakes will be reinstated as genuine medieval instruments. A regrettable trend in recent decades has been to brand as fake any instrument that did not fit their notions of medieval instrumentation or to assert that its function, not understood, must be "astrological".

The advantages to be gained by inspecting large numbers of mainly uncatalogued and unpublished historical objects at first hand will be obvious to any historian. The various Islamic traditions of instrument making can now be related to the history of astronomy in general in the various parts of the Islamic world. We can see the innovations made to standard astrolabe in Baghdad in the ninth and tenth centuries, and can pursue the development of universal astrolabes and plates in Islamic astronomy. The various regional traditions in instrument making in medieval Europe are now clearer than ever before.

The cost of photography for this project is enormous. Several museums have already contributed photographic materials without charge, and it is hoped that others will follow suit. The text of the catalogue currently amounts to about 2,500 pages. But it is easier to begin such a catalogue than to complete it, and in order to produce a final camera-ready copy for publication, additional funding is currently being sought. The completion of this catalogue will surely stimulate renewed interest in a field that is of prime importance in the history of science.

Already numerous studies inspired by the cataloguing project have appeared in print. These are listed here.

In recent years four major museums have collaborated to prepare an illustrated website

The institutions involved are the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford, the British Museum, the Museo di Storia della Scienza at Florence, and the Museum Boerhaave at Leiden. There are both short and detailed descriptions of each instrument in their collections, but alas only one illustration is provided for each piece. This site can be accessed at www.mhs.ox.ac.uk/epact.

In the Provisional Table of Contents that follows the reader should bear in mind that there are no descriptions in (or planned for) the catalogue of most of the instruments postdating 1500, simply citations. The connoisseur will find that the sections on late instruments, Islamic or European, are incomplete. It was thought better to include here outdated lists rather than to suppress them altogether. Some sections have been rendered defunct by the new surveys of Elizabethan instruments by Gerald Turner, of Flemish and Spanish instruments by Koenraad van Cleempoel, and of instruments with inscriptions in Sanskrit by S. R. Sarma.

In the Provisional Table of Contents, entries preceded by W represent "Windows", or essays in which specific themes are treated. Some of these have already appeared in other publications. Likewise detailed descriptions of instruments of particular historical importance have already been published elsewhere. Many instruments featured in auction catalogues over the past 10 years have not yet been included. We shall be grateful for any information on instruments that have been inadvertently omitted, especially on instruments from before ca. 1500.

Click for Publications related to the Cataloguing Project

Click for Provisional Table of Contents

Last updated 4.6.2002