Time Travel

By Chris Landers
Published: October/November 2013

The Smithsonian explores the challenges of getting from here to there. It's about ... time! Boaters, reliant on the extraordinary navigation aids of the modern world, will find this new exhibit fascinating.

Photo of a page from the The Mariner's Mirrour, by Dutch author Lucas J. Waghenaer
Photo: Folger Shakespeare Library
The Mariner's Mirrour, by Dutch author Lucas J. Waghenaer, was the first ever
"Sea Atlas." Look carefully at its detailed images, and you'll discover
a treasure trove of 15th-century navigation instruments.

To get to the new "Time and Navigation" exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., you must first navigate to the National Air and Space Museum. Go up the escalator, pass the excited throngs of high-fiving young fellow navigators on school trips, and choose the door between the engineering model of the spacecraft Clementine and a Tomahawk cruise missile. Walk through that door, and you enter a world of sea and air navigation through time, a compelling interactive exhibit of the people, voyages, and most importantly the instruments that made your remarkable journey possible.

Photo of a chronometer

William Cranch Bond, a 23-year-old Boston clockmaker, made this chronometer during the War of 1812. It was the first American-made marine timekeeper taken to sea.

Photo of a sextant

This sextant, invented in the 18th century by British mathematical instrument makers, permitted mariners to find their position better than ever before. It became the most essential instrument for celestial navigation, used to find the angle of a celestial body above the horizon.

Photo of an astrolabe

An astrolabe measures the angle between the sun or a star and the horizon. The Portuguese are credited with the perfection, if not invention, of the instrument in the 15th century, their great era of world exploration. This astrolabe was made in 1602.

Photo of a marine chronometer

Marine chronometer made by the Hamilton Watch Company of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1941.

Photo of a nocturnal and sundial

Nocturnal and Sundial, signed by Caspar Vopel, Cologne, 16th century.

Photo of a horary quadrant

A horary quadrant for taking time by the sun. Other quadrants of similar design were used to take angles of celestial bodies, like a simpler version of the sextant.

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