The Astrolabe [Beautiful Machines]

When I was asked to come up with a header for this blog, I submitted two ideas to Patheos: a robotic riff on Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, and an image of an astrolabe. Unable to choose between the two, I suggested that the art department just combine them, and the striking image above was born.

I first encountered the astrolabe in college while I was studying Chaucer, who wrote a famous Treatise on the Astrolabe for his 10-year-old son, Lewis. Although it has few of the literary qualities we look for in a work by Chaucer, it’s still a charming example of 14th century home-schooling pedagogy. He even apologizes for his “rude editing” and “overabundance of words” by explaining that “it’s better two write a good sentence twice for a child, since he’ll forget it [if he only reads it] once.”

Rather than leaving it to Chaucer to explain how an astrolabe works, the following presentation by Autodesk’s Tom Wujec provides a superb (and quite perceptive) explanation of their function and meaning:

The astrolabe is everything technology should aspire to be. It is beautiful. It is functional. It was, for its time, the very pinnacle of technological achievement, yet even today its simple effectiveness is striking. A thousand year old astrolabe could do anything today it could when it was first made. You won’t be able to say the same about your iPhone in a thousand years.

Finally, it is God-centered. A person with an astrolabe was not merely finding the answer to a question as a discrete piece of data. He was not merely learning a bit of information, such as What time is it? or What is my current latitude? He was surveying the universe around him. It was as though he was drawing down the stars so they might speak to him. He knew his physical location in the cosmos because the astrolabe told him so. With himself as the reference point, the universe expanded outward around him, and the astrolabe made sense of it all: the motion of stars, the rising and setting of the sun, the rotation of the earth: all of it was depicted on a complex set of rotating discs.

This was only possible because God had given man an ordered universe, and the ability to understand it. God is the grand artificer of creation, the conductor of the musica universalis. A medieval man would not just see a mechanical depiction of the motion of the observable universe in an astrolabe, but also know that his place in that universe was assured because he was created in the image and likeness of a loving God. Each time he used it, he was not merely doing the equivalent of checking his watch or his phone for the time. He was reestablishing his place and role in creation.

A generous selection of photographs of astrolabes can be found here. Take a moment to see how our allegedly benighted medieval forbears combined design, functionality, usefulness, craftsmanship, and beauty to create one of the milestones in technological development. The Christian and Muslim scholars who created these devices did so not just because they found them practical or useful. They created them because they fulfilled the highest calling of science and technology: to help us better understand the work of God.

This post was originally published in April 2012.