This Device Might Be England’s Oldest Dated Scientific Instrument

The 712-year-old artifact is a horary quadrant, a medieval tool used to tell time based on the position of the sun

Close-up shot of engraved metal
One side of the device was used to tell the date of Easter Sunday. Christie's Images LTD. 2023

Billed as the “earliest dated English scientific instrument,” a 700-year-old medieval device used to tell time sold for £126,000 (more than $150,000) at a Christie’s auction today.

The object is a horary quadrant, which tells the time by tracking the sun’s position in the sky. This particular specimen was made in 1311, though the earliest record of such a device outside of England dates to the 13th century.

“These quadrants were probably the tools of merchants, senior churchmen and scholars,” says James Hyslop, head of science and natural history at Christie’s, in a statement. “The knowledge they provided would have revolutionized the way people in the Middle Ages lived.”

The device is shaped like a quarter of a circle. With a radius of just over two inches, it’s small enough to fit into the palm of a hand, notes the Telegraph’s Ed Baker.

It’s made of a copper alloy plate featuring various engravings, including lines used to divide the time between sunrise and sunset into 12 equal periods. Under this system, an hour in the summer is longer than an hour in the winter, reflecting the fact that “being able to work during daylight was crucial,” per the auction house.

Triangular shaped piece of metal with engravings
The timepiece is small enough to fit in the palm of a hand. Christie's Images LTD. 2023

One side of the device also has a spinning index pointer, which was used to calculate the date of Easter Sunday. The year 1311 is also engraved on that side.

“It is like a medieval computer,” Hyslop tells the Telegraph.

The artifact predates all other known dated scientific instruments from England. The next oldest known device, called the “Chaucer Astrolabe,” dates to 1326 and is housed at the British Museum.

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Christie’s has not revealed the seller’s identity, but Hyslop tells the Telegraph that this individual bought the horary quadrant more than two decades ago “because he thought it looked interesting” but didn’t research the device until this year.

Now that the artifact has surfaced, Hyslop tells Newsweek’s Ian Randall that its existence is “evidence of a more sophisticated workshop for scientific instruments than we'd previously thought." He adds: “Medieval English instruments are incredibly rare, so any new discovery adds hugely to our knowledge of science at the time.”

Another notable item in the sale was a silver microscope dating to around 1700, which went for £138,600 (more than $170,000). It belonged to Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, a self-taught Dutch scientist who lived from 1632 to 1723 and is known as the “father of microbiology.” The rare device could magnify objects to 285 times their original size. Using handmade microscopes like this one (he made more than 322 of them), Leeuwenhoek discovered microorganisms, looked at muscle fibers up close and observed bacteria for the first time.

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