The Astrolabe

Contributor: Brian Anthony. Lesson ID: 11946

Uh oh! No signal! The computer locked up! Not enough satellites! The screen is cracked! Ancient sailors didn't have those problems. They had a reliable engineering marvel that you can build yourself!


Space Science and Astronomy, World

learning style
personality style
Otter, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8), High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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  • What do you think the cool-looking device pictured above does?

Let's say you were on a little trip with friends.

Actually, you are out at sea, and you are on a giant wooden ship. It also happens to be the fifteenth century.

  • How are you going to figure out in which direction to steer your ship?

Chances are you would reach out for a very special device called an astrolabe. This device, however, doesn't connect to wifi and cannot make phone calls, and yet somehow, according to some medieval accounts, it can perform over 1,000 different tasks, like measuring distances and measuring time!

It turns out that for a lot of things we do nowadays, there was already an app for that hundreds of years ago!

Read more about the invention and development of the astrolabe. As you read the article, Astrolabe, by Abby Cessna courtesy of Universe Today, write down the information and ideas that answer the following questions:

  • What are the basic parts of the astrolabe?
  • What parts of the natural world does it use to solve problems?
  • When and where was the astrolabe invented?
  • Who made significant improvements to the astrolabe?

Reflect on the following questions:

  • How do new technologies change the course of historical events?
  • What are some specific technologies, especially pre-electrical technologies, that changed the course of history?
  • How do specific technologies evolve over time? Can you think of any examples?

The astrolabe was an extremely important piece of technology without which events like the discovery of the Americas by Europeans might not have been possible. It also looks like a work of art in its own right.

In the Got It? section, learn some basic astrolabe-reading skills.

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