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.



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