Book Review – ‘Navigation on Wood: Wooden navigational instruments 1590–1731: an analysis of early modern Western instruments for celestial navigation, their origins, mathematical concepts and accuracies’ by Wolfgang Köberer

By Wolfgang Köberer, published February 2021


Reviewing the literature one notices, though, that a certain class of instruments has not received the attention one would expect with regard to the fact that it was in wide use since the end of the sixteenth well into the eighteenth century: the wooden instruments developed from the cross-staff and its variants. They were, of course, treated in combination with other instruments in such encyclopaedic works as Art of Navigation in England in Elizabethan and Early Stuart Times by D. W. Waters and Zeewezen en Wetenschap by C. A. Davids but so far there was no study solely dealing with them in detail. Nicolàs de Hilster’s work fills that gap.

The book contains de Hilster’s thesis for obtaining a doctorate at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam; it is based on more than a decade of researching these instruments and building replicas of most of them. Its academic origin is shown by its structure as well as the diligence in documenting the sources, the methods and the findings. As an academic study the author formulates the questions addressed by his research and dealt with in this study right in the beginning: how did wooden navigational instruments evolve in the period 1590–1731, what was their common origin, how did they perform and why did the best not become the most widely used?

The book is profusely illustrated with pictures and diagrams from contemporary pub- lications and photographs taken by the author himself, so the verbal description of details can be understood better. There is an extensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources, even giving the location and shelf mark of copies of the primary sources as well as 8 appendices, among them a survey of existing Davis quadrants, a catalogue of the instruments made by the author and even the data of his field tests, so anybody inquisitive enough can recalculate his findings.

No one (except perhaps the publishers and reviewers!) can read a work like this from beginning to the end, but that is not really the intention: it is, rather, a mine of information where a reader can find answers to general questions like the accuracy of instruments and the development of individual classes of instruments as well as a plethora of discussions on related problems (about instrument distribution related to cost, ease of use, details of construction, distribution of nautical literature at the time, etc.). It will become the standard reference work, especially for collectors of antique instruments and specialized dealers, for a long time. So anyone who is interested in the history of navigational instruments would be well advised to get a copy. Moreover, at €25 (plus postage) it is a bargain very rarely found in scientific books these days.

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Filed under: Period | Early Modern | Eighteenth Century | Other (Early Modern) | Other (Eighteenth C)
Subjects include: Miscellaneous | Science & Exploration

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