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The AstrolabeI’ve been fascinated by astrolabes for a very long time, roughly 20 years. It was this avocation that led to my interest in sundials and, because they share museum space, my interest in clocks. When I lived in Rockford, Illinois, I would haunt the Time Museum, an institution that produced the most beautiful book on astrolabes. Adler Planetarium in nearby Chicago has one of the best astrolabe collections in the entire world, producing another beautiful book solely on Western astrolabes and a gorgeous book on antique scientific instruments in general. None of these provide the mathematical details of astrolabe design beyond a description of stereographic projection, and indeed this kind of detailed information is rarely found. The Astrolabe, a new book by James E. Morrison, is an absolutely unique and wonderful book on the mathematics needed to create accurate, beautiful designs of astrolabes, quadrants and other related instruments. I can’t recommend it enough to those who share the interests of this blog.

In 1996 I discovered James Morrison’s excellent website, still the best one on astrolabes, and ordered both versions of The Personal Astrolabe, a precision astrolabe on laminated card-stock customized for my latitude and longitude. Its 50-page booklet is excellent in explaining the basics of astrolabes and their use. I’ve used one of these astrolabes on camping trips to identify stars and tell time, and from that day to this, through 3 jobs, the other one has been hanging on my office wall. I’ve assembled and used two instructional astrolabe kits, one put out by the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich and another lesser one. I’ve devoured papers on dating astrolabes from variations in star locations due to the Earth’s precession, on detecting forged astrolabes, on Islamic astrolabe decorations, and so forth. So I like astrolabes.

And in the same year of 1996 Mr. Morrison sent me a draft copy of his translation of Henri Michel’s Traité de l’Astrolabe, the only text on the mathematical details of astrolabe design I had encountered other than the short appendix of Harold Saunders’ book, All the Astrolabes. But the constructions in Michel’s book were geometric; the only equations were provided in two chapters inserted by Morrison. In an accompanying letter Morrison mentioned that he was working on a book—and now, suddenly, 11-1/2 years later, here it is. And it is a stunning, 437-page, large-format book containing 265 detailed drawings from PostScript files created by the author, presenting the design and mathematics of astrolabes, quadrants and related instruments. In addition to the technical details, the book is infused with the history of these instruments, describing their global spread from Greek mathematical and astronomical thought through their maturation in the Islamic world followed by their re-introduction into Europe by the Moors in Spain, as well as presenting the origins and inventors of specific instrument types. A clear overview of astronomical basics is included for those with little background in this area. Program listings are provided in BASIC and C to calculate typical design parameters, and there is even an introduction to generating PostScript output for astrolabe graphics (I will be using LaTeX and the TikZ vector drawing package, thank you). I am thrilled by this book—it eclipses any other book I’ve seen on how to design astrolabes. It also provides specific examples on using these instruments—for example, this is the only book that I know of that describes how to use a linear astrolabe in sufficient detail for me to understand it.

You can find more information and a sample chapter from the book to download here (you may recognize Gunter’s quadrant in this chapter from Part III of my nomography essay). Morrison writes that he is from a family of grammarians, and it shows in the care and clarity of the prose in this book. If you want to see photographs of astrolabes you will want a different book; if you are interested in astrolabe design you will love this book.

To be clear, I have absolutely no financial connection with James Morrison beyond my purchases in 1996 and the Christmas gift of this new book from my brother. I also have no connection to Amazon or to the Adler Planetarium.

[Please visit the new home for Dead Reckonings: http://www.deadreckonings.com]

7 Responses to “Book Recommendation: The Astrolabe, by James E. Morrison”
  1. Jagger says:

    As humbling as it is, I must admit this specific topic is a tad out of my reach. However, having visually looked through this book, and I must say from a professional presentation perspective this particular book is one of the finest I have seen. I tend to peruse a lot of different media formats to broaden my own creativity and inspiration for my own art form (try taking in a book store like an art museum some time to see what I mean - plus you can touch it) - the crispness and intricacies of the graphs and diagrams are stunning.

  2. Mitch Burrill says:

    Ron -

    Great article on nomography! thanks. Send me your email and I’ve give you a copy of my (nearly complete) Autocad astrolabe. You really learn a lot making your own.


    Done! I’m looking forward to seeing it. — Ron

  3. Matt Healy says:

    Have you ever visited the wonderful Istituto e Museo di Storia della Scienza in Florence?
    Its most famous artifacts are those associated with Galileo (including the lens with which
    he made some of his astronomical discoveries, and the bones of one finger) but my
    favorite room is the Mathematical Instruments Room. And one of the most gorgeous
    instruments there is this one:


    Hi Matt. I haven’t visited Florence, but I will someday. The quadrant you linked to is beautiful, and it looks like it’s in unbelievable condition. I love these things–in fact, at the end of my third essay on nomography here I show a Gunter quadrant and a Sutton quadrant as early graphical calculators. I hadn’t seen this “universal” one before, though. Thanks! — Ron

  4. Matt Healy says:

    Whenever you do get to Florence I’m sure you will enjoy visiting the Museo di Storia della Scienza. If that collection were anywhere other than just down the street from the Uffizi Gallery I think it would be a lot more famous than it is, but of course for a fairly small city Florence has such an incredible profusion of museums that the average visitor never gets to most of them. I only learned about the History of Science museum because one of the faculty leading my student group taught History of Science so when he learned I shared that interest suggested I visit the place.

    One of the calculating instruments at the Institute was invented by Galileo:

    I’ll remember that museum, thanks. And that’s a remarkable video at the link you provided–I had heard of Galileo’s compass but I didn’t realize it was much more than dividers and an angle scale. — Ron

  5. OSA fa says:

    yes this is amazing book
    please i want pdf copy of the astrolabe book becouse i’m in Egypt and i can’t able to bring it

    please send me your Autocad astrolabe , I’m studying the astrolabe and i collect any thing related

    my email : lgvry@yahoo.com

    I bought the book so I don’t even know if Mr. Morrison has any digital version available in any format. He would be the best person to ask about that. His contact information is on his website. — Ron

  6. Azam Noor says:

    Dear friend, I am too studying astrolabe and need to know if anyone have pdf version of Morrison’s The Astrolabe book. I have bought this book from ebay (http://cgi.ebay.com/The-Astrolabe-by-James-E-Morrison_W0QQitemZ310097592848QQcmdZViewItemQQptZLH_DefaultDomain_0?hash=item483341c210) but I want this pdf version to printed in a quality paper for references. Also if anyone have Autocad Astrolabe let me know and you can send it to my email: azzameen@gmail.com. I look forward to have a friend in “astrolabe” because I was an astrolabe collector in Malaysia. Best regards.

    Hi Azam. I don’t know of any PDF version put out by the author, but the book itself is printed on very high quality, large format opaque paper. I’ll look up the address of Mitch Burrill and let him know you are interested in the Autocad Astrolabe. — Ron

  7. Nick Trudeau says:


    It seems like I am not the only one interested in astrolabes. I am very interested in Mr. Morrison’s book as well. I have emailed him to see if he has a pdf version of his book. I know these have been posted a long time ago but wondered if you still had the AutoCAD of the astrolabe. I am very excited about this old technology and am interested in if you have any additional information that I would like to take a look at. Thank you in advance for your time.

    Best Regards,
    Nick Trudeau