Did you ever wonder how sailors of old navigated the open seas without modern technology? Well, this week’s video may shed some light on the subject. The “Mariner’s Compass Rectified,” (1787) by Andrew Wakely—the third of nine videos from the #MovableMondays series, is housed in the Rare Book Collection on the fifth floor of Alden Library’s Mahn Center.
The video highlights another example of a volvelle, a moveable feature consisting of two concentric circles made of paper or parchment that would have originally been seen in medieval manuscripts.
Here the circle spins, but oftentimes, said Miriam Intrator, special collections librarian, “you’ll see more layers [of paper] containing different types of information.” As a navigational text, mariners could have calculated the sunrise or a constellation on any given date.
According to Rheagan Martin, a curatorial assistant at the Getty Museum, the volvelle was an innovative tool for its time. The paper “calculating device was considered a form of ‘artificial memory’ that freed users from committing large amounts of detailed information to mind. Because of this, the device has been compared to early computers—though a comparison to a floppy disk might be more accurate.”
In spite of what appears to be a simplistic device, a volvelle provided a wealth of data to early scholars and mariners.