Heath and Company’s best vernier sextant

10 12 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”, “An Hungarian Sextant via Bulgaria” ,  “A Half-size Sextant by Hughes and Son” and “A Fine C Plath Vernier Sextant.”

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.

Several years ago, when I had first started to restore nautical sextants, I bought a Brandis vernier sextant on e-bay. I was dismayed when it arrived to find that it appeared to be loose inside a case that did not  belong to it and, worse, the case was jammed shut, perhaps explaining why the seller had not followed my usual request to put packing around the sextant inside the case. Eventually, I was able to get the case opened without damaging it and found that, improbably, the Brandis sextant had escaped all damage. The rosewood case, bound in brass, belonged to a Heath and Co pillar sextant that, as befits such a high-end product, had been provided with every possible accessory, though the only one present was an early 10 x 20 prismatic monocular. I restored the case and put it aside, against the day, yet to come, when I could acquire the sextant to go with it. However, a few weeks ago I acquired a somewhat later Heath and Co top-end product, an 8 inch (200 mm) radius vernier sextant, equipped with their patent “Hezzanith” endless tangent screw automatic clamp and a set of telescopes that was complete except for a prismatic monocular and the rising piece to go with some of  the other telescopes.  The sextant had its own case, so I still have a spare case for a Heath and Co Pillar sextant, and could be persuaded to part with it if offered the right price…

Heath and Co were granted a patent for their automatic clamp in 1910, so the sextant was no earlier than that, but it also had a Class A inspection certificate from the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, dated January, 1921, so that its date can be fixed to within a dozen years (see Figure 1)

Figure 1 : Inspection certificate.

The mahogany case (Figure 2) had been protected from much damage by being contained in a stout cowhide satchel. It came as no surprise that most of the stitching had rotted and given way, nor that the leather of the lid hinge had dried out and parted company with the rest of the satchel. I spent a few quiet afternoons restitching the case by hand and gluing strips of leather to repair the broken hinge. Nothing can be done to restore the finish, however, and illustrating the satchel will have to await a post script. While the top of the case had, as is usual, been attached with glue and screws, I was surprised to find that shortcuts had been taken with the bottom: it had been attached by glue and brass panel pins, both of which, after over seventy years, had given way in places. Some of the drawer dovetails at the corners had also given way, so I re-glued everything and replaced the panel pins with brass screws. The “furniture”: brass handle, keyhole escutcheon, piano hinge and hook latches, responded to 600 grit emery paper, followed by metal polish.

Figure 2 : Exterior of case as found.

The details of the hook latches are a little interesting, as they incorporate a safety lock (Figure 3), similar to those found in some early post WW II Tamaya sextant cases. A springy brass sector plate is screwed to the case underneath the hook and when the hook is swung into the closed position, the plate springs up behind the hook, so that it cannot be accidentally un-latched without first depressing the plate.

Figure 3 : Safety hook latches.

A “belt and braces” (belt and suspenders in US) approach was taken to securing the sextant in its case. The pocket and boxwood latch is commonplace, but Heath and Co added the refinement of a brass pillar that  locates the handle in the pocket, and which has a spring-loaded tongue that projects above the handle to secure it. Pressing a button at the rear of the case (Figure 4) withdraws the tongue and releases the handle. The figure also shows that the legs rest upon a springy brass plate that protects the bottom of the case from the legs and also prevents the instrument rattling within its bonds.

Figure 4 : Release knob.

Figure 5 shows the sextant in its case before restoration. At some time, the original black lacquer had been over coated with black paint which had begun to flake off.  Beneath the paint was widespread verdigris that fortunately had progressed no further than a light surface coating. The frame, mirror brackets, shades mountings and legs are all of bronze, while the index arm is a single plate of heavy brass. Catalogues often describe sextants as having brass frames, but brass is an alloy of copper and zinc, without the resistance to corrosion of the copper and tin alloy that is bronze. The silver arc has a radius of about 200 mm (8 inches) and weighs a hefty 1.8 kg (4 lbs) without any telescope mounted. The size of the mirrors is large for the era. The index mirror measures 38 x 57 mm while the horizon mirror is 30 x 40 mm.  The large star telescope “sees” a relatively small area of the reflected image, but has a wide view of the horizon through and around the unsilvered part of the horizon mirror.

Figure 5 : Interior of case as found.

There is a substantial set of telescopes (Figure 6). Of especial note is the 4 x 52 mm Galilean or “star” telescope that, despite its impressively large objective lens, has a measured field of view of only 3.5 degrees. The other star telescope is only a 3 1/2 x 19 mm instrument that is very little different from those in use a hundred years earlier. While lacking the light grasp of the large star telescope, the 4 x 30 inverting telescope has more than twice the field of view to compensate. The 11 x 19 mm inverting scope again belongs to another era and even by 1921 was probably very seldom used. The kit is completed by a zero magnification sighting tube and a pair of eyepiece shades, to which I have added the 10 x 20 mm prismatic monocular with its field of view of about 3 degrees.

Figure 6 : Telescope kit.

 Those telescopes not provided with a forked rising piece have interrrupted screw threads, to allow them to be mounted on the instrument  thread with less than one sixth of a turn. The rising piece for these ‘scopes was missing, so I had to make a new one from scratch. This can be seen in Figure 7 , below, but I have saved the description of how to make it for my next post, under the “Interesting Overhaul Problems” category.  The plain fork fits into a substantial and close-fitting slot in the telescope bracket and is retained there by a nut and a large knurled washer. The washer has a short slot cut in it at 45 degrees to a radius and could presumably have engaged with a button on the telescope fork to act as a crude way of making fine adjustment to the position of the fork, by rotating the washer. However, the large star telescope has no such button and only traces of the button remained on the prismatic monocular, following its adaptation to another instrument.

Figure 7 : Telescope mounting.

The index arm bearing is typical. A slender bearing fits closely in the frame  and a tapered shaft or journal rotates within it. The end of the shaft bears a square that fits inside a square in a washer, while a screw adjusts fit and removes end play. It is worth noting (and repeating) that this screw is used for taking up play only until the faintest trace of resistance to rotation is felt and is then slacked off a little. It must not be screwed up hard as this will very likely cause the bearing to seize, if it does not first twist off the head of the screw. The purpose of the square is to prevent rotation of the shaft being transmitted to the head of the screw. A cover acts as a third leg for the sextant.

Figure 8 : Index arm bearing.

  The mirror mountings are standard, following the pattern described by Peter Dollond in a letter of 1772 addressed to the Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne. In the letter, Dollond describes how the mirrors are supported at only three points at the back and are retained in their brackets by three spring clips that bear on the front directly over the points. Dollond claimed to have devised the system. Whatever the truth of this, he was granted a patent for it on 22 May 1772 (no. 1017), though one should bear in mind that in the eighteenth century at least, patents were not about priority of invention but gaining a monopoly of use. One of the screws on the index mirror mounting allows it to be brought perpendicular to the plane of the arc and on the horizon mirror, one screw brings it parallel to the plane of the arc while the other one makes it parallel to the index mirror when the sextant reads zero. In this instrument Heath have made a slight refinement to protect the thread of the adjusting screws by providing a counterbore which fits over a boss at the rear of the bracket and which can be filled with a soft rubber washer or with grease (Figure 9). A front view of the clips is shown in Figure 10.

Figure 9 : Horizon mirror mounting.


Figure 10 : Horizon mirror clips.

Figure 11 shows how the horizon shades are mounted and the same arrangement is used for the index shades. The shades are mounted on a tapered shaft and are separated by washers which also have tapered holes in them. When the shaft is inserted into the bracket and through the sandwich of shades and washers, it is prevented from turning by a pin that passes through its head into the bracket. As the adjusting screw is tightened, the washers and shades are forced further up the taper, thus increasing the friction. There is enough friction between the washers and the shafts to prevent them from turning, so that rotational forces from moving one shade are not transmitted to the next. Unusually, in addition to the four index shades, there is an astigmatiser. This is a weak primatic lens that draws out the image of a star into a fine line. In some circumstances, this can make it a little easier to bring a star down to the horizon and, if correctly mounted, can indicated whether the frame of the istrument is tilted relative to the horizon. However, its main use was probably when employing an artificial horizon, when the line of the reflected image would be made to bisect the round direct image of the star, or the image of the bubble when using  a bubble artificial horizon. The latter had only recently been invented at the time this sextant was made.

Figure 11 : Horizon shades

Cheaper vernier sextants generally simply mounted the magnifier at approximately the correct viewing angle and focussing was carried out by sliding the magnifier up or down in a sleeve at the end of a swing arm centred about one third of the way up the index arm. Heath’s rather elaborate and delicate swing arm carries trunnion bearings that allow the magnifier to be tilted so that the view through the magnifier can be centred at any point along the vernier scale (Figure 12).

Figure 12 : Scale magnifier.

Figure 13 (below) shows the intact catch fitted to the rear of the index arm expansion on the left and the exploded structure on the right. A swing arm plate carries the bearings for a worm and its shaft and is itself carried on trunnions that run in bearings mounted on the index arm. Click on the photo to see an enlarged view. These bearings also double as keepers that prevent the index arm from lifting off the front of the limb. Close inspection of the right hand side of the illustration will show that these keeper-bearings have bosses that fit into bushes within holes on the index arm. The holes in the bushes are eccentric, so that the position of the bearings of the swing arm plate can be adjusted to remove end float of the plate and to bring the worm into correct engagement with the rack. End float of the worm itself is removed by adjustment of a cone-ended screw that engages with a centre in the end of the worm and that is locked by a knurled lock nut

Figure 13 : Release catch mechanism.

When the release catch button is squeezed, the worm and its mounting is swung out of engagement with the rack so that the index arm can be placed rapidly and approximately in position, after which the worm is used to make fine adjustments. Because it is so short, the pitch of the worm is rather difficult to measure, but it appears to be of around 0.8 mm (32 t.p.i.). After receiving their patent (No 17,840 of 10th March, 1910), it seems that it took Heath and Co another fifteen years or so to make the obvious next step and make the pitch such that one turn of the worm moved the index arm through half a degree, or 1 degree of sextant reading. This probably had more to do with conservatism than with technique, as the rise of the motor industry around the turn of the century had stimulated the production of  accurate gear hobbing machines. There is some evidence that C Plath of Hamburg had produced a very similar release catch mechanism somewhat before Heath did so, and they certainly continued to do so into the 1920s, until their micrometer sextant gained popularity and ousted the vernier instrument. Neither firm could of course claim priority for the worm and rack which was certainly known to 1st century Greeks. Heath’s claim was for the method of mounting  a “spring urged plate upon which the traversing screw is mounted…in such manner that the traversing screw can be taken and held out of gear...”  Had Plath patented their micrometer sextant in 1907, when they first advertised it, this is probably precisely the claim they would have made. Figure 14 shows the restored instrument in its case. If you have enjoyed reading this post, you may enjoy reading my book “The Nautical Sextant”, available through good booksellers, from Amazon and direct from the pjoint publishers, Paradise Cay Publications and Celestaire.

Figure 14 : Restoration completed.

Gummed-up AN 5851-1 bubble sextant averager.

9 12 2011

This post is preceded by “Bubble illumination of Mk V and AN 5851 bubble sextants” ,  ”Refilling Mark V/AN5851 bubble  chambers” ,  ”Overhaul of MkV/An5851 bubble chamber” ,  ”AN5851-1 : jammed shades carrousel” ,  ”A Byrd sextant restored” ,  ”Update on Byrd Aircraft Sextant”, “A nautical sextant bubble horizon” and “Sealing A10 vapour pressure bubble chambers.”

Bob Hauser asks a question in a different category that I think best deserves an answer in the form of a short blog. He asks

Recently acquired Bendix AN 5851 had stalled averager that could be wound up to stop as per directions but would then simply remain in that state when the release lever (“no. 3”) was pressed—-for lack of any better solvent/lubricant, I lavished Reel-X on the bull gears and down under those gears into the inner chronometer mechanism and gently turned the pawl driver clockwise by hand and repeated this 4 or 5 X manually until the averager ran on its own for the required 2 minutes …yes, it worked but for how long with that stuff in there before it gums up even worse? Reel-X is a solvent/lubricant that has about the viscosity of sewing machine oil and may wind up being the worst thing to admit in the chronometer like that…can you advise?

Generally, watches and clocks do not respond well to being flooded with lubricant for a variety of reasons: there is very little power at the end of a watch gear train, at the point where the rate at which the machine runs down is regulated by the escapement and balance wheel, so that even the surface tension of oil between the gear teeth or in the coils of the balance spring can bring the mechanism to a halt; the pivots, or bearings about which gears and other parts rotate, are provided with tiny oil wells (“sinks”) and the shafts are shaped at the end to keep the oil where it belongs. If the oil strays on to the plates of the mechanism, the oil that should be confined to the bearing tends to follow it; and  excess oil combines with fine dust and grit so that the bearings and pinions (those gears with relatively few teeth) eventually grind themselves to a halt.

So what is Bob to do? One could say “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,” but ideally, the clockwork mechanism should be removed from the sextant, stripped down, cleaned, re-assembled and oiled in the correct places. This of course needs clock-repairing  knowledge and practice. While the official manual explains how to remove the mechanism, it involves removing substantial bits of the sextant first, with all the risk of introducing new problems or damaging or disturbing the optical system. I suggest that he simply expose the clockwork and try to do a bit of dry cleaning, removing visible Reel-X from the plates where they are accessible and from the gears that he can reach. He should pay special attention to the balance mechanism, removing any lubricant from between the coils of the hairspring and excess oil from the pivots. For the larger parts like the plates and large gears, small pieces of old cotton handkerchiefs applied with fine forceps are ideal, though he should take care not to leave stray threads behind. For smaller, more delicate parts, I suggest scraps of lens paper which, though it is not all that absorbent, it less likely than paper towels or handkerchieves to leave fibres behind.

How to access?


Figure 1 : Remove two screws and nut and bolt.


Figure 2 : Remove two screws.


Figure 3 : Remove one screw.


Figure 4 : Remove one screw. Note washer.

Once the lighting unit is out of the way you can get access to all the twelve round-headed screws that hold the sheet metal cover around three sides of the clockwork mechanism. Remove the screws and cover (Figure 5).

Figure 5 : Remove twelve screws and cover.

This partially exposes the mechanism. Concentrate on getting as much excess oil from the low power end of the gear train. The stars in Figure 6 show the important areas. There is plenty of power further up the gear train, but it will still pay patiently to remove as much oil as you can see and get at.

Figure 6 : Important areas from which to remove excess oil.

Re-assembly is the reverse of dis-assembly. Good luck!


A Fine C. Plath Vernier Sextant

4 12 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”, “An Hungarian Sextant via Bulgaria” and “A Half-size Sextant by Hughes and Son”.
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.
Until the late 1930s, sextants seem to have been provided with a variety of viewing  accessories, whereas by the 1950s this had been reduced to a single star or Galilean telescope, perhaps with the addition of a sighting tube. The Japanese firm of Tamaya continued until late in providing a Galilean telescope and high power inverting ‘scope, usually ten or twelve power. The size of the kit in pre-war sextants probably depended more on the depth of the buyer’s pocket than on any particular utility of the optics provided. I recently acquired a Plath vernier sextant, dated no later than 1923 that has a more-or-less standard kit, with the addition of a pair of binoculars. A later post will describe an approximate British equivalent of about the same date which has an even more elaborate set of optics.

The Plath instrument was in generally good condition except for the paintwork, which showed the expected wear and tear of a seventy year-old instrument and my first task was the by-now routine one of stripping down the whole sextant to its component parts and repainting the frame, index arm, shades and so forth. I polished screw heads, cleaned out the slots, replaced screws that had  damaged heads and re-assembled the parts to give the appearance of a near-new instrument. A few shrinkage cracks in the case required refilling and the sextant pocket had disintegrated, so this had to be re-assembled and made fast again to the floor of the case. I also cleaned up the exterior brass work and lacquered it. There were no particular difficulties in restoring the instrument, so I will confine myself to a description of it as it now is, working from the outside in.

The case is made of high quality quarter sawn mahogany, from an era when such precious woods were available solid  in substantial widths (Figure 1). The corner s have box comb joints and the top and bottoms are glued and screwed to the sides. The handle is of typically elegant C Plath form. Hook latches hold the lid closed and there is also a two lever box lock, used more as an insurance against the lid falling open than as a theft deterrent. The wise (or obsessional) mariner might also carry it with an index finger over the lid or with the lid against the side of his leg. The brass keyhole escutcheon carries an engraved “Sunseeker” C Plath logo (Figure 2).

Figure 1 : Exterior of case

 Figure 2 also shows the Sunseeker logo on the name plate inside the lid of the box and engraved on the front end of the limb. The latter also carries the serial number, dating the sextant to no later than 1923 and the stamp of Deutsche Seewarte, the German Hydrographical Institute that, like the National Physical Laboratory in Britain, assured the quality of nautical instruments. A final detail shown is the stop screw that limits the movement of the index arm. Many makers omitted this detail, allowing the base of the horizon shades mounting at one end and the telescope mounting at the other to halt the movement of the index arm.

Figure 2 : Sunseeker logos on lock escutcheon, name plate and limb

Figure 3 shows the sextant in its case. The ladder-pattern frame is of bronze with a silver arc of 175 mm radius and the vernier scale is divided to ten seconds, while the index arm and other attached parts are of brass or are small bronze castings. The index mirror, small by modern standards, measures 44 x 32 mm, with an horizon mirror of 32 x 30 mm. The Galilean or “star” telescope is 2 1/2 power x 26 mm and the Keplerian or “inverting” telescope is 6 power x 17 mm. An unusual feature is the provison of a pair of Gallean 3 x 26 mm binoculars, complete witha  rising piece that allows them to be used in conjunction with the sextant. This is probably an advantage when the horizon is indistinct, as approximately one and a half of the binoculars views the horizon while the other half views the reflected body. This is probably an oversimplification of the actual state of affairs. It is accepted that the brain does not receive twice as much information when binoculars are used but 1.414 times as much (the square root of 2 times as much). The instrument is held in the case in a wooden pocket with cross bar. This is not altogether a satisfactory method, as the grain of the wood is apt to give way and set the sextant adrift. The chain that prevents the lid from falling backwards is something that I now add to all fine sextant cases, as it prevents the hinges from being strained if the lid falls open.
Figure 3 : Contents of case.
The remainder of this account is concerned with design details, starting with the mirror adjusting screws. Referring to Figure 4, which shows the rear of the index mirror bracket, the screw that adjusts the mirror for perpendicularity passes through a threaded hole in a brass strip and then through a threaded hole in the back of the mirror bracket. A second screw passes through a clearance hole in the strip and into a threaded hole in the bracket. One end of the strip is bent to form a foot and when this second screw is tightened, it tends to lock the adjusting screw, as clearances in the thread of the latter are taken up. Some sextant manufacturers, Tamaya in particular, copied this set up and often appear to have omitted to form a foot, making locking a hit or miss affair, especially when a flat strip bearing a round nut was simply attached tightly to the back of an aluminium bracket.

Figure 4 : Mirror adjusting device

Until the Second World War forced makers to make economies in materials and time, the rising pieces of sextants was usually provided with some form of fine adjustment for height, often together with an adjustment to allow the optical axis of the telescope to be made exactly parallel with the plane of the arc. Figures 5 and 6 show one such arrangement.

Figure 5 : Rising piece.

 The adjusting knob  and feed screw are held captive in the bracket, and when the screw rotates it causes a rectangular nut to move along it. Attached at one end to the nut is a flexible metal strip or clip, which has a hole in its other end for a button on the telescope rising piece. The clip has a longitudinal slot through which the locking screw passes into the bracket. When the screw is unlocked, the feed screw can cause the clip with the telescope rising piece to move towards or away from the frame of the sextant, to allow the telescope to see more or less of the horizon. The telescope ring can be made to tilt in the rising piece to bring the axis of the telescope parallel to the frame of the sextant, by means of a pair of adjusting screws (see my post of 2 September 2011 : Tamaya Collimation Blunder for details  ).

Figure 6 : Rising piece exploded.

 The lower end of the index arm is conventional (Figure 7), with a Ramsden-type magnifier to allow the vernier to be read easily and a diffusing screen to reduce glare when doing so. The slow motion adjustment does not differ in any essential respect from that described by G. W. Heath of the British instrument makers Heath and Co., in their patent application granted 10 March 1910 (British Patent  no. 17840). However, well before this date in about 1907, C Plath had invented the release catch and slow motion adjustment of a micrometer sextant that was later to become the standard arrangement used by almost every other maker except Heath and Co.  There exists a Plath instrument that was almost certainly made before 1907 and that has the Heath arrangement. It is not clear quite why they continued to make it as late as 1923, when their new arrangement was  easier to manufacture and superior in use. Possibly there were conservative mariners who continued to want vernier sextants at a time when the micrometer sextant was less than fifteen years old.
Figure 7 : Index arm details.
Figure 8 shows some details of the rack and worm. The worm shaft is mounted in bearings on a swing arm or plate and end float of the shaft is prevented by a pre-load leaf spring (Heath used a cone-ended screw and lock nut). The plate itself is mounted between centres, and when the release catch is squeezed  the plate swings away from the limb of the sextant against a spring between the two button of the catch. This brings the worm out of engagement with the rack and the index arm can then be swung rapidly to any required position before releasing the catch, so that the final fine adjustment can be made. The worm has a pitch of about 0.5 mm so that its threads and the teeth of the rack are rather delicate and prone to injury if the worm is accidentally dragged agains the teeth. However, there is no need for great accuracy in cutting the worm and rack, in contrast to the requirements of a micrometer sextant.

Figure 8 : Rack and worm.

 If you have found this account of the details of a sextant of ninterest, you will find many more similar details in my book “The Nautical Sextant”, available through bookstores, Amazon and direct from the joint publishers, Paradise Cay Publications and Celestaire.