The astrolabe

These days, if someone asked you to imagine a device you could hold in your hands that could tell you where you were, what time it was, and whether the omens were good for starting a war with the Trojans, you’d say that you didn’t need to imagine one. You already had your iPhone. Trouble was, they didn’t have the iPhone back in the days of the Roman Empire. Even more trouble: people really needed a way to figure out where they were, particularly out in the uncharted seas. You’ve got to know in which direction to point your retinue of slaves so they can row to the next land to conquer.

Part science, part mystic instrument, the astrolabe was the answer. The name comes from the Greek. The word astron means a heavenly body such as a star or a planet, and lambanein means to take. That’s what the astrolabe did. Took measurements. Once you had taken your measurements, you could do all sorts of things. The device brought together the latitudinal lines of the earth and the positions of landmarks in the sky. If you could measure the altitude of the North Star, say, you could work out whether you were on the right track for the Cape of Good Hope. In Islam, an astrolabe was the perfect tool to find the Qibla: the direction of prayer towards Mecca.

Because astronomy was closely linked to astrology, scanning the stars for predictions as well as positions became natural. In the absence of the shipping forecast, aspiring weather watchers might use the astrolabe to gauge whether rain was on the way.

During the 17th and 18th centuries, in the Age of the Enlightenment, the astrolabe began to fall out of favour. We preferred science so stardust; we had better clocks, someone invented the sextant, and then the computer came along.

As the UK hurtles towards yet another general election, however, I suspect that an astrolabe could still have a useful function.

The opinion polls predicting the outcome of the 2015 general election were wrong.

The polls predicting the outcome of the 2017 general election were wrong.

The polls predicting the outcome of the 1992 general election were horribly wrong.

Also, of course, the predictions for the outcome of the European referendum were way off base which is why there was such tangible shock the morning after.

So, as the UK hurtles towards deadline day, you might as well pop down to your local museum and ask to borrow their astrolabe to predict who’s going to win. Chances are, it’ll cross reference the North Star with your sign of the zodiac, multiply those with the latest weather forecast, then spit out an answer.

As accurate as anyone’s guess.


An astrolabe in the British Museum

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