A Half-size Sextant by Hughes and Son

29 09 2011

Previous posts in this category include:  “A C19 Sextant Restoration” , “Making a Keystone Sextant Case” , “Restoring a C. Plath Drei Kreis Sextant” , “Heath Curve-bar sextant compared with Plath” , “A Drowned Husun Three Circle Sextant”, ”Troughton and Simms Surveying Sextant” , “A Sextant 210 Years On” , “A fine sextant by Filotecnica Salmoiraghi”, “A British Admiralty Vernier Sextant and “An Hungarian Sextant via Bulgaria.”

Clicking on the figures will enlarge them and allow you to see more detail, while clicking on the back arrow (top left) will restore the post.

Hughes and Son made sextants and other navigational instruments from the middle of  the nineteenth century until 1947, when they merged to become Kelvin and Hughes. Prior to and during the Second World War they made a wide variety of aircraft instruments, among which was a small sextant intended for use in seaplanes such as the Sunderland flying boat, perhaps not so much for celestial navigation as for taking anchor bearings and amplitudes for checking the magnetic compass. Quite why an ordinary nautical sextant was not issued is unclear, as the small sextant in its case weighs only 600 G less than a full-size Hughes sextant of the same period that weighs in at 3.9 kg. There was scant advantage in volume either : the smaller instrument’s case is 200 x 200x 140 mm against the full-size case of 275 x 260 x 145 mm. The sextants were made under an Air Ministry contract and, like the Mark IX series of aircraft bubble sextants, were issued in a case made of a heavy dark brown plastic material similar to paxolin. It is probable that in a period when imported timber was at a premium and skilled woodworkers were engaged on aircraft production, the plastic cases, made of 5 mm sheets pinned together with brass nails, were seen as a satisfactory solution. The examples in Figure 1 show a full-sized Hughes and Son nautical sextant and its little brother  along side it. The smaller one was made in 1943 and eventually made its way to Australia, where it was sold by T.M.Burroughs of Flinders Street, Melbourne  to the Third Officer  of a ship (whose name I cannot decipher) in May 1948 for the sum of twenty pounds. This was about the going rate for a full-sized sextant: one in my possession was sold new  in 1945 for eighteen pounds, with an extra four pounds for a large aperture telescope. There are very many so-called reproduction or “replica sextants” of similar size on the market, but this is a fully functional and accurate instrument able to perform at nearly the same level as a full-sized instrument.

Figure 1 : Two Hughes and Son sextants

Figure 2 shows the instrument in its case. The handle is the same as for the larger instrument, on the side of the case, and the latches are very similar to those used for Hughes cases of the 1930’s. The sextant’s legs sit in mahogany pockets and it is further restrained by two pads in the lids, all typical of Hughes’s full-size practice.  There is a Husun (Hughes and Son) calibration certificate in the lid and pockets for the oil botttle, adjusting pick and a key for the box lock. I have seen an example from 1942 in a mahogany case with otherwise identical furniture and layout.

Figure 2 : Interior of case.

The front view of the sextants, seen in more detail in Figure 3, reveals that the shades, mirrors and micrometer mechanism are all  full sized, while the x2 fixed focus Galilean telescope has an aperture of 20 mm against that of 30 mm for the larger sextant.

Figure 3 : Front (left hand) face of sextant.

The telescope has no rise and fall mechanism and is attached to the frame by a single screw that passes through a boss in the base of a shaped column. A dowel pin locates it so that it points in the correct direction. This pin can be seen above the boss in the close up photograph of the telescope column in Figure 4.

Figure 4 : Location of telescope in frame.

The rear (right hand) view is shown in Figure 5.

Figure 5 : Rear (right hand) view of sextant.

  The handle, like the telescope,  is mounted on a single column, but instead of being restrained from rotation by dowels, the column has squares on each end that fit into sockets in the handle and sextant frame, being held there by single large screws (Figure 6). Notice too that the index arm bearing is concealed by a stout brass cover that screws over it and doubles as a third leg.

Figure 6 : Method of locating handle.

In the view of the micrometer mechanism (Figure 7, below), note the fine pitch of the worm which allows a full-size drum to be used. The worm shaft has a tapered thrust bearing and a parallel portion, which run  in a single block of bearing, with preload applied by a U-shaped spring. The worm shaft is in two parts, to allow assembly. The release catch operates a cam which swings the assembly out of mesh with the rack.

Figure 7 : Micrometer mechanism.

 The mounting of the shades, particularly the index shades, is a little unusual (Figure 8). Normally, the shades are mounted on a shaft that is prevented from rotating, and the shades are separated by washers that are also prevented from rotating, so that when one shade is rotated into position rotation is not transmitted to adjacent shades, and they do not follow. This is very convenient when taking sights, as it is easier to find the sun with a relatively light shade in position, when a darker shade can then be swung into place without one having to take one’s eye off the quarry.  In this little sextant, there are no washers. Instead, slots have been milled in the mounting for each shade. These can be closed up by means of  nut on the end of the mounting pin or shaft, and the latter is prevented from rotating by a crossed taper pin through its head. In the 1942 sextant mentioned above, the shades mounting follows Hughes’ standard practice.

Figure 8 : Index shades mounting

The horizon shades are mounted on a single shoulder screw and are separated by red fibre washers that fit tightly on the screw. A Belleville washer, which behaves as a short, stiff spring, provides friction and the screw is locked by a shallow nut (Figure 9).


Figure 9 : Horizon shades mounting.

Figure 10 shows the bare frame of the instrument.

Figure 10 : Bare frame.

A kind French correspondent, whose name I have unfortunately lost, sent me a photograph of a similar sextant in his possession (Figure 11). It is identical except that it is named Heath and Co. and carries a telescope in the style of that company. It may be that the Ministry of Aircraft Production or the Air Ministry during the exigencies of World War II imposed some degree of cooperation between the two makers, or perhaps Heath and Co acquired some instruments as war surplus and added their own name and telescope.

Figure 11 : Heath and Co. seaplane sextant.

An Hungarian sextant via Bulgaria

21 09 2011

Previous posts in this category cover:  “A C19 Sextant Restoration” , “Making a Keystone Sextant Case” , “Restoring a C. Plath Drei Kreis Sextant” , “Heath Curve-bar sextant compared with Plath” , “A Drowned Husun Three Circle Sextant”, ”Troughton and Simms Surveying Sextant” , “A Sextant 210 Years On” , “A fine sextant by Filotecnica Salmoiraghi” and “A British Admiralty Vernier Sextant.”

 A few weeks ago on e-bay, I bought a sextant that was said to be Bulgarian. The seller was Malaysian and I seemed to have been the only bidder for this interesting-looking instrument so that my finances stretched to its purchase. The pleasant and communicative seller initially sold it without a case, as it was broken (Figure 1), but I contacted him to ask him to keep the case and send it with the sextant, which he very happily did. When it arrived, the brass placard on the ruined pinewood box read “Gamma Budapest”, but there was a stencilled Cyrillic word on the top which, if it were Russian, would transliterate as something like shtuomluskhii, which does not appear in my rather small Russian-English dictionary. The Hungarian language uses Roman letters and its nearest neighbour with a sea coast, onto the Black Sea, and that also uses Cyrillic letters, is Bulgaria. Hungary itself is totally landlocked, but it has not always been so. However, the Treaty of Trianon following the First World War removed huge fragments from the Kingdom of Hungary, and gave them to Austria, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria and the former Yugoslavia. Hungary had the misfortune to be on the losing side in the Second World War too and lived under the heavy hand of the Soviet Union for many years after.

Figure 1 : Base of ruined case


As a guess, I would say that the sextant was made in the years following WWII, as the shades and micrometer mechanism are identical to those of C Plath sextants of the time, many parts of which seem to have reached Britain and the USSR as plunder and reparations. The frame, however, is of a most unusual form, cast in aluminium alloy with the rack cut directly into the frame (Figure 2). The lower case Greek letter gamma (γ) forms part of the frame and there is of course a star (though not a navigational one), gamma sextans to complete the allusion in the name. The frame is covered in a thick and tough coat of black gloss paint, so it is not possible to judge whether the frame was die cast. Very few must have been made , so that it would be hard to justify the cost of the die. More likely, it was sand cast as the front of the frame (except for the arc, which has been machined) is not flat.

Figure 2 : Sextant as received

Cutting the rack directly into the frame is not a problem in itself, but I was taken aback to see that the worm was made of steel rather than the more usual brass used on bronze racks or hard bronze used on aluminium racks. The threads bore a light patina of rust (Figure 3). Almost as undesirable, the brackets for the shades are cast as one with the frame (Figure 4), so that if part should get broken, and shades are very vulnerable to damage, it is practically impossible to make good the damage. The mounting of the shades in the brackets is standard for Plath sextants of the time, on a cylindrical pin prevented from rotating by a crossed taper pin and adjusted by closing up the cheeks of the bracket with a screw let into the end of the pin   A refinement is missing : that of a key way in the pin and keys in the washers that separate the shades, so that rotation of one shade is not transmitted to an adjacent one.

Figure 3 : Steel worm.

Figure 4 : Shades mountings.

The mirror brackets show signs of internal machining so that they are either die castings or  have been cast separately and machined afterwards. Of interest to lovers of detail are the clips for holding the mirrors in place and the method of locking the adjusting screws . The clips (Figure 5), which bear conical points, are fastened to bosses on the front of the brackets, whereas practically all other makers secure them to the edges, where there is little metal and a high risk of stripping threads. The adjusting screws (Figure 6) bear directly opposite the points, passing through a threaded hole in a separate brass piece and then through a clearance hole in the back of the mirror bracket. The brass piece is secured to the back of the mirror bracket and is split so that a pinch screw can close it up and lock the adjusting screw. This is a very practical and effective arrangement though of course it adds to the cost of the instrument.

Figure 5 : Mirror clips.

Figure 6 : Mirror adjusting acrews.

The index arm and its bearing are conventional. The taper of the bearing is typical of C Plath practice, rather steeper than in English sextants. and, again as in C Plath sextants, the index arm expansion that bears the micrometer mechanism is a separate piece, attached to the arm by four screws. Like war time Plaths and early US BuShips Mark II sextants, there is no micrometer vernier and the drum is divided to half minutes. The Galilean (star) telescope is 3 x 40 mm aperture and has  binocular-type eyepiece focussing.


Apart from making two new pieces for the floor of the case, and reassembling it, there was relatively little for me to do in the way of restoration once I had taken the instrument apart and cleaned all its parts. I could not, however, leave a rusty steel worm in place and so I made and fitted a new one of brass (Figure7) .  I have given  an account of making a worm in a separate post (6 July, 2009, A worm turns). The micrometer drum had weathered to a dark nicotine brown, but careful cleaning and rubbing with 1000 grit emery paper converted it to a much more legible light orange colour. The telescope rising piece was also, surprisingly, made of steel, but I felt that it could be left, as it is a non-critical component. A thorough cleaning of the lenses of the ‘scope brought about a pleasing increase in clarity of view.

Figure 7 : Two worms and their shafts.


The instrument quality is generally rather good, so I was disappointed to find that it is the most inaccurate sextant that I have calibrated so far, though, paradoxically, it is quite precise. The reading of the sextant give values that are between 14 and 104 arcseconds (0.2 to 1.7 minutes) in error, but when the errors are plotted on a graph, the graph is very close to a straight line, so that the errors can be allowed for to give  readings that are very close to the correct ones. I will be giving more details of this and its probable cause in a separate post in the Chasing tenths of an arcminute category, but Figure 8 shows the table and graph of errors with a line of best fit plotted on the graph. Unfortunately, the errors are non-correctable, but an accurate estimate of the reading may be had by applying a correction from the graph.

Figure 8 : Calibration table and graph of errors.

The final photograph, Figure 9,  shows the completed sextant in its repaired and re-varnished case.

Figure 9 : Completed restoration.


István Benkó has kindly sent me the following information about the makers of the sextant: Gamma Optikai M?vek was a Hungarian camera maker in Budapest. It was founded as Gamma Finommechanikai és Optikai M?vek Rt. (Gamma Works for Precision Mechanics and Optics Ltd.) in 1939. Its most famous cameras are the Pajta’s in 1955 and the technically advanced SLR named Duflex designed by Jen? Dulovits in 1947.

Tamaya Collimation Blunder

2 09 2011

A comment in February this year on NavList about the Tamya Regulus sextant set me wondering, as the Tamaya sextants I have examined seem to be well-constructed. The writer commented on problems people had with the Regulus pattern at a nautical training establishment in the 1970s, so when a Tamya Regulus II recently came into my hands for overhaul and restoration work, I looked at it with unusual care. It seems to have been well-constructed, following the pattern set by C. Plath many years ago. It has an aluminium alloy frame with bronze rack, large mirrors and shades to match,  an adequate 3 x 40 Galilean telescope, a very good scale illumination system and a switch that is accessible and easy to overhaul. I was as puzzled by the adverse comments about the instrument by the time I had put it together again – until I came to align the telescope.

The telescopes of many sextants can be collimated, that is to say, the axis of the telescope can be adjusted so that it lies parallel to the plane of the arc. A lot of modern sextants do not have this feature, as the effects of mis-collimation have relatively little effect on the accuracy of observations, unless the observed angle is high or the angle of misalignment is great. For example, if the observed angle is 60 degrees and the misalignment is 55 minute, the error will be only half a minute. In fact, the error is proportional to the tangent of half the angle of observation and to the square of  the angle of misalignment in minutes.

Usually, the telescope screws into a flanged ring, and two screws allow the ring to be rocked about the rising piece, with two cone-ended screws for an axis, as shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1 : Collimating rising piece exploded

After I had adjusted the mirrors, I moved on to check the collimation of the telscope and to my surprise found that it was not possible to do so, as the adjusting screws rocked the telescope up and down, parallel to the plane of the instrument, rather than at right angles to it. Figure 2 shows at the top the rising piece as I found it and beneath, the rising piece as it should have been.

This led me to look at another sextant of identical construction and undoubtedly made by Tamaya though bearing another name. It too had the same mistaken construction as did one currently for sale on e-bay and named Tama-Sokki. I promptly re-arranged matters by plugging the tapped holes for the adjusting screws, tapping holes for the adjusting screws where the seats for the cone-ended screws had been and rotating the telescope ring through 90 degrees (Figure 2, lower half). This modification requires only two grub screws and can be done with hand tools alone. One can only guess how Tamaya overlooked this blunder. Probably someone in the drawing office got a bit confused, noone in production noticed the error and, it seems, neither did a great many sellers and users of the instruments. My impression is that many users never attempt to check for anything other than index error. There is something to be said for noting small index errors rather than constantly fiddling with the adjusting screws, but personally I would always check the adjustment of any instrument that I was going to rely upon, correct large side and index errors and at least glance at the telescope to see that it had no obvious lean to or away from the frame. Any good book on the sextant (like The Nautical Sextant) and many manuals of navigation will tell you how then to adjust the telescope collimation.