Tag Archives: Age of Exploration

Maybe that’s why 18

A reader—who goes by the nomme de keyboard ‘Good Luck’—was intrigued by my question: Why did Magellan take 18 sandglasses on his voyage of circumnavigation? The result was Good Luck found these fascinating articles about Magellan’s voyage and the instruments of navigation/timekeeping available to him. What follows below are his comments and links:

Check out the site below. It indicates there were sandglasses of different time periods and multiple sandglasses might be used to improve accuracy. It also seems possible there were extras in case of breakage.


The article at the link below discusses the use of 14-second and 28-second sandglasses to determine speed. It also describes the use of a 30 minute sandglass used in conjunction with a transverse board to record course and speed. Combined with the 30 minute and 4 hour sandglasses used to measure shifts and watches, as discussed in my previous post, it appears a ship could have had sandglasses of various timespans running at the same time.


The link below provides some information on the inventory Magellan had, part of which is quoted below.

“The fleet that set out employed the best ships and navigation devices of the time: 23 navigation charts, 35 compasses, six pairs of compasses, 21 quadrants, seven astrolabes and 18 sandglasses, among other instruments.”


I can not tell if the inventory listed above was per ship or if it was spread across the five ships that started the voyage. In either case, there appears to be significant redundancy in the compasses, quadrants, and astrolabes, so it seems possible a portion of the 18 sandglasses may have been redundant as well.

So, considering multiple uses, multiple timeframes, likely redundancy, and possibly supporting five ships, having multiple sandglasses makes sense. As to why exactly 18 . . . ?

Thank you, Good Luck! If you change your mind about a drawing just give me a shout.

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Does this projection make my continent look big?

 I drew this version of Ptolemy’s map showing only the longitude lines. He drew them curved to give you the idea that the world is round.

A challenge navigators faced when reading a flat map of the round Earth is that as the meridians—the longitude lines—got closer to the north and south poles they kind of bent around to simulate the round globe. That’s a problem if you’re trying to chart a course. The meridians and parallels don’t meet at right angles so you need to keep adjusting your calculations about where you are…it’s a hot mess.

Gerard Mercator devised a way to mathematically flatten the globe. He imagined a flat map wrapped like a cylinder around the globe. So far, so good. But as you bend the top and bottom of the map to wrap the globe, they get all bunched up, right? There’s too much paper. So he trimmed some paper off the top and bottom, leaving strips that are wide at the Equator and pointy at the poles. These strips are called ‘gores’ in the cartography business.

Without Mercator, with Mercator.

You can do two things with these gores when you flatten them. One is to leave them as they are, with blank space in between the pointy ends. The other is to fill in the blank space in between the pointy ends with more map. Mercator did that— and he straightened the meridians and drew the continents to fit the new coordinates. The result is that you can use the latitude/longitude lines to chart a course that will be perfectly accurate.

Of course, the land and ocean at the top and bottom get stretched out on Mercator’s projection. That makes sense, because what had been a dot (the pole) has been stretched out across the top or bottom of the map.

Recently, some people have complained that on Mercator’s map, the continents closer to the poles appear to have more land mass than the continents near the Equator. That appearance has caused the residents of the equatorial countries to feel bad about their land mass.

The Western Civ User’s Guide staff is here to help. If you’re feeling bad about your land mass, call 1-800-IFEELBADABOUTMYLANDMASS and talk to one of our concerned and sympathetic counselors.



Here’s a great old video of how globes are made. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4RWcWSN4HhI
Notice how when they paste the map onto the globe, the map is cut into sections called ‘gores’—pointy at top and bottom, wide in the middle.


Here’s the amazing 17-year-old Leslie Gore, who is not a section of a map. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RjdH_NmmO0I

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Creative freedom of the press

I used to own a clamshell press like this one. Steampunky goodness.

For a graphic designer, there are few toys as fun as a printing press. I’m talking about relief printing or engraving. Digital printing doesn’t even come close to the creative satisfaction an artist feels viewing a small run of her poster or book or etching. There’s a hands-on quality that’s part of cutting a woodblock or linoleum block and combining it with metal type to produce a printed work of art.

How exciting it must have been as the Age of Exploration unfolded—when map-makers and printers partnered up to chart continents no European had seen before! That’s the place for an artist to be: right at the front of a new technology, where your work has an audience who’s willing to pay you well for it.

This article conveys the creative energy involved in producing maps back then—and the story of a map that had been missing for centuries. It’s only very recently that Martin Waldseemüller’s map is available for us ordinary shmoes to look at.

Martin Waldseemüller’s map was the first to use the name ‘America’ and show the Pacific as a separate ocean. It was printed in 12 sheets to make a really big map—8’ x 4 1/2’.
The Library of Congress made a composite of the 12 sheets. Click on it to zoom in. https://www.loc.gov/resource/g3200.ct000725C/?r=0.35,0.205,0.058,0.029,0


Small Biz Startup: Bedford Creek Press

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Good news for canaries

Ptolemy published a book titled Geography which gave the latitude and longitude for over 8,000 places.

Ptolemy’s map* shows all of Earth he knew back then: Europe, the north coast of Africa, India and most of Asia. The Prime Meridian of Ptolemy’s map runs through the Canary Islands just west of Africa. Everything else is east.

As mapmaking took off as a business in the Age of Exploration, mapmakers in every little country, state and principality used a different Prime Meridian. You can see how this might get confusing.



* Maybe Ptolemy drew this map, maybe he didn’t. The locations on the map, though, are based on their coordinates given in Ptolemy’s book.

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Let’s talk about maps. For most of history, maps weren’t particularly accurate for navigation. They were bird’s-eye views of cities or else fanciful drawings that included pictures of weird sea-serpents and bizarre inhabitants of unexplored lands. Maps were expensive because they were hand-drawn works of art.




Old Maps With Sea Monsters


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It’s been a long trip so far

I want to take a moment to thank everyone who’s been hanging with me throughout this little history. I feel like I’ve been telling a year-and-a-half-long joke and I’m just about to get to the punchline.

Since January last year, we discovered how people in the past measured space and measured time. We followed along as travelers ventured further and further from home—traders and explorers became bold enough to make long voyages across the oceans without knowing exactly where they were. To navigate, you need to measure both time and space. Most of the inventions that measure time and space didn’t appear until around the 1500s.

Here’s what you need if you plan to cross an ocean and would like to know where you are going:
1. an accurate map, to know what you’re looking for
2. a compass, to orient the map
3. an astrolabe, to find latitude (how far north or south you are)
4. universal time, to find longitude (how far east or west you are)—Galileo proposed that if you can see the positions of Jupiter’s moons, and you know what time it is locally, you can figure out your longitude. Jupiter’s moons would be a universal clock.
5. an accurate clock, to know local time

The Exploration Age sailors set sail without an accurate map or clock, because those things didn’t exist yet (a pendulum clock doesn’t work on a rocking ship).
Astrolabes or Jupiter’s moons are only useful when the sky is clear. So, even in the 1500s sailors didn’t have all the tools they needed for navigating.

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East is east and west is west

Navigators still faced the problem of not knowing how far east or west they were. Latitude is how far north or south you are. You can tell that with an astrolabe. Longitude is how far east or west.
It was a problem Amerigo Vespucci tried to solve. In 1502, he wrote: “…I learned [my longitude] … by the eclipses and conjunctions of the Moon with the planets…” He was trying to find longitude by observing the Moon’s and Mars’ positions in relation to the Earth. Not only was this an overly-complicated method, it had several drawbacks—mainly it only worked during a specific astronomical event.


I’d be a clod not to link Rudyard Kipling’s poem, which I quoted in the title above—http://www.kiplingsociety.co.uk/poems_eastwest.htm

While we’re at it, here’s Bob Hope and Jane Russell in The Paleface, singing Buttons & Bows.

The Nocturnal

Magellan probably used this instrument to tell time at night, called the nocturnal. If you live in the northern hemisphere, you might notice that the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) and the northern constellations revolve around Polaris, the North Star. The nocturnal tells you what time it is based on a star’s position in the sky.

Like an astrolabe, you hold the nocturnal by a ring at the top. The round backplate shows the months and days. Sitting on that is another round plate with the hours of the night—this plate is for the particular star you’ll be sighting. Through the center of both plates is a hole where you sight the North Star. You put the arrow on today’s date (the drawing is on early October), point the pointer at your star and the pointer will show you the time (eight o’clock).

Here’s a website where you can download and make your own nocturnal.

If you have access to a 3D printer, you can download and print this nocturnal for free. https://outguy.blogspot.com/2013/05/3d-nocturnal-celestial-stardial-tjt56.html


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Why 18?

According to inventory records, the Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan had 18 hourglasses on each of his ships during his circumnavigation of the globe in 1522. I’ve read this fact in more than one source, but no one tells us why eighteen. Multiple hourglasses would allow you to check one against another for accuracy, but 18 seems like a lot for that purpose. Were all 18 used at the same time? You need only one sandglass to cast a log—and that sandglass would count minutes, not a whole hour.

It seems Magellan used the hourglasses mainly for keeping track of time. But why did he need 18 of them?

If anyone can tell me I’ll draw you a picture.

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Travel brochure

You just know this idea was scribbled on the back of a napkin and handed directly to the unfortunate engraver, who tried to make some sense of it.

‘Lettera di Amerigo Vespucci delle isole nuovamente trovate in quattro suoi viaggi’
‘Amerigo Vespucci’s letter on the islands newly-discovered on his four voyages’

This language is Italian, not Latin—Vespucci was educated by his Humanist uncle. Humanism was a way of thinking that celebrated the achievements of people. That was a departure from the Christian Church’s view that all human achievement flows from God. Before Humanism, books and other publications were written in Latin—the language of the Roman Catholic Church. Humanists were the first to write in the vernacular—the language spoken in their own country.

I don’t know—Vespucci’s travel brochure needs something. I took the liberty of designing a new one with more pizzazz!