13th Century Navigation System

[ted id=694]

[Tom Wujec] explains how an astrolabe works and its importance in our technological development. He argues that an astrolabe was the world’s first “popular computer”. It measures the sky and that measurement can be used to tell time, survey land, and navigate a ship.

Astrolabes are built from three pieces and according to [Tom], educated children in the 1200’s would not just have been able to use one, but could build one as well. Electronics have certainly made our lives easier, but there’s something powerful about such a useful yet simple device.

27 thoughts on “13th Century Navigation System

  1. For a good start at an astrolabe (and several other ancient navigational aids) I just got this book: Latitude Hooks and Azimuth Rings by Dennis Fisher [ISBN-13:9780070211209] (try half.com)

    Seems to be a number of projects for me here.

  2. The ability to navigate with an astrolabe didn’t help much. You could plot latitude but not longitude. Ergo, pretty much nobody knew where the fuck they were going.

    Read Longitude by Dava Sobel for a very entertaining and informative read on how this problem was solved.

  3. Hackius, actually we have a better North Star than ever, certainly better than they had in the 1300s. Nowadays, Polaris is about 0.75 degrees from the pole. In 1300 it was about 4.5 degrees away.

    Polaris will keep getting better and better until about 2100, when it will be within half a degree of the pole.

    Around 44 BC, the time in which Julius Caesar is set, it was almost 12 degrees from the Pole. So when Shakespeare had J.C. say “I am as constant as the Northern Star”, he wasn’t saying much.

  4. Looks like a variation of the Slide Ruler (he mentions hundreds of other things it could calculate), and the Slide Ruler dominated until about 1975 when it was replaced by the (now) common Hand Held Calculator.

  5. Who gives a shit what time it is?
    While the Astrolabe was cool 600 years ago, an iPhone is cool today.
    I’m sure educated children could use an Astrolabe then. Hell, they could maybe even tell time +/- an hour or so, and navigate a ship to a continent.
    But today, even total uneducated dweebs can tell time +/- 1 second and navigate with Google Maps to the nearest McDonalds +/- 1 meter.
    I find that a bit cooler actually.

    They could even surf the net and read about the Astolabe and build one after the big EMC blast.

  6. People that dont understand the importance of things like this, drive me crazy. “I could just get it off the internet” etc.. WOW. Things like this,celestial navigation etc, are much more important, than your stupid iphone, or this stupid computer I am using right now.
    Things even simpler than this such as the Kamal http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kamal allowed intercontinental navigation for thousands of years Before Columbus..

    As for not knowing longitude, it doesnt matter, as long as you know your vector in comparison to your lattitude and the stars, you will be fine.

  7. @JB

    I think you’ve missed the entire point of his presentation. Aside from him trying to wow you with how “cool” it is, he’s trying to say how unconnected we are to the underlying workings of technology we use and your examples are pretty much his point!

  8. He seems to be trying to make the point that the Astrolabe was a superior time piece because the user would know more about what was going on around them than “just the time”. It seems to me, though, that when people look at a clock, all they want is the time, and everything else is just surplus information. Modern people don’t know exactly when the sun is going to come up or from what angle because it doesn’t matter to their lives, and unless you were a captain on a boat a lot of it probably didn’t matter much to you 600 years ago either (although sunrise and set time might, but you’d probably look these up in a table rather than use an astrolabe to figure it out every day). Modern clocks are not only superior to astrolabes because of their accuracy, they also remove a lot of pointless information and process that made “getting the time” a real pain in the ass, by the look of it. Don’t get me wrong, they look like beautiful machines. But they are obsolete, and nothing of value has been lost information-wise because of their obsolescence.

  9. I think it speaks volumes that something so old can do much of what we desperately rely on computers to do for us today could be made and operated from wood 800 years ago.
    try asking the average north american 12-year old how many stars they know by name. They’ll probably come up with names like ‘Lady Gaga’ Mylie Cyrus, or Beyonce. This is what we have shown our children to be important. Many kids today are so busy watching other people live on tv, they forget they can have their own full rich lives, with or without technology. Very disconnected indeed.
    While not perfectly precise by our standards, the astrolabe looks like a ‘killer app’ of its time.

  10. I found this really interesting. It does indeed show that we rely too much on technology, I think the point of this presentation was to show that people do not have a clue how technology works no more, and I couldn’t agree more.
    Who hear could explain to me how Microsoft word works? or who here could tell me how open office works? (the latter should be easier as you could look into the source code)many would say, “Oh you click the icon and write things” etc.. yet they have no idea what goes off in the background.
    whereas the child mentioned in this presentation would know how to use the devise they are using AND how to make it.
    Who here could make a program like open office/Microsoft word? Well, obviously it would take some time so you would need a team to help code it. but you get my point.

    It also shows how people are becoming less intelligent, look back many years ago, everyone knew how to read, and they could do research. their is a lot of people that do not know how to read no more, and you sit someone in front of a computer these days and ask them how to make a little hello world program they would sit their and shrug instead of doing research for that particular question that was asked.

    Ok, i’ll shut up, iv gone way off subject anyway.

Leave a Reply

Please be kind and respectful to help make the comments section excellent. (Comment Policy)

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.