MHS Collection Database Search


Inventory no. 70229 - Epact entry

Epact number: 55548

Armillary Sphere

circa 1580; Italian
Brass; 995 mm in height

Main text

This large instrument, supported by three lions, is one of the most impressive in the collection of the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford. It also has one of the most complete and interesting provenances.

The base of the instrument carries the arms of Henry Percy, ninth Earl of Northumberland (1564-1632), known as 'the Wizard Earl' on account of his interests in astronomy, astrology, alchemy and other branches of natural philosophy. He employed mathematicians such as Thomas Harriot, Walter Warner and Thomas Hughes during his 16-year imprisonment in the Tower of London on suspicion of involvement in the Gunpowder Plot.

This instrument was presented to the Bodleian Library in 1601 by Sir Josias Bodley, the brother of the Library's founder, and it has remained in Oxford since 1613.

Source museum: Museum of the History of Science, Oxford
Museum number: Inventory no. 70,229

Detailed text

Three cast lions support three arms, shaped and decorated with scrolls, leaves, animals and figures, which rise to the horizon ring, which has the four cardinal points marked on the rim. Engraved on the base is the coat of arms and quarterings, crest and badge of Henry Percy, ninth Earl of Northumberland. The meridian ring is supported by a slot beneath and two that cut the horizon ring. A scale of degrees 90 to 0 to 90 to 0 to 90 from the north point is divided to 5, subdivided to 1, numbered by 5, and is also numbered 0 to 90 to 0 to 90 to 0. The meridian ring is divided similarly and numbered both for declination and for polar distance.

Pivots at the celestial poles support a celestial sphere of equinoctial and solstitial colures, equator, tropics, arctic and antarctic circles, and a zodiacal band. The equator has a degree circle 0 to 90 four times, divided to 5, subdivided to 1, numbered by 10; the scale extends across the zodiac. The zodiacal band has a date scale with the names of the months in Latin, each with a scale of days divided to 5, subdivided with alternate hatching to 1, numbered by 5 as appropriate, and a zodiac scale with 30 degrees for each sign, divided to 5, subdivided to 1, numbered by 5. Although the signs have prominent and elaborate representations, they are not named. The first point of Aries is at 10|1/2| March.

At the ecliptic poles is a second pair of pivots, on which rotate three right angle unmarked rings, and at diametric intersections of these is a third pair, on which rotates a similar set of rings, while at a diametric intersection of these in turn is a rod with a central sphere.

Jim Bennett

Other narratives:

Related Objects:

Inventory No. 70229, "Armillary Sphere, Italian?, c. 1580" [1951-55]