An Early C19 Ebony Quadrant Restored

11 03 2012

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” and “Heath and Co’s Best Vernier Sextant.”

Many of the sextants in my collection began as wrecks that I have usually been able to restore without too many challenges, but after Christmas I bought an ebony quadrant or octant that had been sold “for parts or restoration” and found that I had to make many new parts in the style of 19th century instruments. It arrived as a frame and a plastic bag of screws and other bits and pieces, including a co-axial cable socket!  Had I not known that the maker was Crichton of London (Figure 1), I doubt that I would have bothered to proceed.

Captain Lecky’s advice in his famous book “Wrinkles in Practical Navigation” was to own  both an octant and a sextant. The octant was usually a wooden instrument capable of measuring up to 90 degrees with a precision of about a minute while the sextant was an altogether more expensive and finely made item with a bronze frame and an arc divided  to read  often to ten seconds (a sixth of a minute). The sextant would be used to measure angles of up to 120 degrees when, for example, making lunar distance observations, while the octant would be used for coarser observations that required no great accuracy. No doubt, there were mariners in poorly paid positions who could not afford to follow Lecky’s advice and for whom the octant was their only instrument. By the second half of the nineteenth century, lunar distance observations were becoming obsolete, displaced by the marine chronometer, so that paradoxically, as the quality and accuracy of sextants increased the need for extreme accuracy fell. However, even by the turn of the twentieth century, there were still ships that did not carry chronometers, whose navigating officers did not make lunar distance observations and whose celestial navigation might be confined to noon altitudes of the sun and pole star observations for latitude. Perhaps it was on one such ship that my battered octant found its home.

There was a James Crichton working in Glasgow who probably spent two years, from 1774 to 1776, in London, but our Crichton was John Crichton who flourished in London between 1831 and 1865 and who showed off some of his scientific instruments in the Great Exhibition of 1851. He was based in Leadenhall Street (Figure 2) which is in the centre of London and which joins Fenchurch Street, the home of the famous dynasty of instrument makers, Henry Hughes and Son.

Figure 2 : Leadenhall Street in mid C19

  Figure 3 shows the contents of the bag of bits and pieces while Figure 4 shows the frame and index arm. From left to right in Figure 3, the traditional pear-shaped handle shows a mixture of quality. The upper mounting has plainly been fabricated from turned parts, while the lower mounting is a somewhat crude sand casting in brass where little effort has been made to remove evidence of the casting flash, the casting metal that creeps between the two halves of the mould box. The index arm journal had parted company with the index arm. It was a matter of moments to resolder it to the disc that carries the index mirror bracket. The latter, together with the horizon mirror mounting, lacked the clip to hold the mirror to the bracket. Sawing out sheet brass, folding it to shape and soldering the joints took the better part of a morning. Two of the index shades were loose in their mounts and one had parted company with its mount, but it took only a few minutes to tighten them up by bending over the retaining lips, a process called swaging.

Figure 3 : Loose parts

As mentioned, the index arm and its journal had parted company, and the tangent screw mechanism had somehow migrated from the back, where it belongs, to the front (Figure 4). The bedraggled frame was in an even worse state, having lost its legs and the arc. The latter in wooden-framed instruments was sometimes made of boxwood but more commonly of ivory, which is now, for practical purposes, unobtainable except perhaps by scavenging from the keys of a wrecked piano, and even then the material may be ivorine, an early plastic related to celluloid. Obtaining something with the appearance of ivory was the subject of some experiments, but dividing the arc posed few problems to a well-equipped workshop. My account of how I produced the arc will have to be the subject of another blog post. I show the results in Figure 5 and hope that my scribing of the figures approximately matches the style of the hand-scribed name plate shown in Figure 1

Figure 4 : Frame and index arm.

Figure 5 : Detail of arc.

The clamp and its screw were missing from the tangent screw mechanism. Figure 6 shows a piece of parent brass being tried for size in the mortice of the piece that I have chosen to call the sliding block (since nobody else seems to have done so in print), and Figure 7 shows the clamps screw being checked before final turning. By this stage the clamp has acquired a strip of “well hammered” springy brass.

Figure 6 : Trying clamp for size.

Figure 7 : Clamp screw being checked.

Figure 8 shows the completed mechanism. When the clamp screw is tightened, the clamp fixes the sliding block to the limb of the octant. The threads of the tangent screw, which is held captive in a bearing attached to the back of the index arm, pass through a nut in the sliding block. When the tangent screw is rotated, the index arm moves slowly over the limb and allows fine adjustment of the position of the index arm. Thus, it is really the index arm that slides, rather than the sliding block.

Figure 8 : Tangent screw mechanism.

In a cheap instrument, time would probably not have been wasted turning legs to a tapered shape but I had made three new legs before the thought occurred to me, so the rejuvenated instrument has tapered legs. Figure 9 shows one of these being turned. At some later date, I may make new legs that are more in keeping with the class of octant. At the top left of Figure 6 can be seen holes where legs once resided. Selley’s “Steel Knead It™” is useful for filling the holes, as it dries to a black that is a fair match for ebony and can also be drilled and tapped to allow new legs to be screwed into place.

Figure 9 : Taper-turning a leg.

Figure 10 shows the front of the index mirror clip and Figure 11 the back. When the screw is tightened its tip bears on the back of the upright of the mirror bracket, pulling the claws on the front of the clip against the mirror so that the latter is pressed against three small projections on the front of the bracket, opposite the claws. This method of holding the mirror at three points that are supported on the other side of the mirror ensures that the glass is not distorted by asymmetrical strains and was first described, if not invented, by John Dolland in the mid 18th century.

Figure 10 : Front of index mirror clip.

Figure 11 : Rear of index mirror clip.

Before a sextant or octant can be used, the index mirror has to be made perpendicular to the plane of the arc. There are several ways of doing this: by tilting the mirror in its mount as in most modern sextants; by making the bracket perpendicular in the first place as in a few high class modern sextants; or by tilting the bracket with its attached mirror. The latter seems to have been the solution favoured by 18th and early 19th century makers. Figure 12 shows how it was done. The mirror bracket is fastened to the index arm by two screws that pass through clearance holes in the bracket into the index arm. A third screw  passes through a tapped hole in  heel of the bracket and its end bears on the index arm. Tightening the screw tilts the bracket and mirror forward and loosening allows them to tilt back. It is a satisfactory method except for the ham-handed, who are liable to tighten the third screw without slackening the fastening screws a little to allow movement. Perhaps there were many ham handed mariners, those “overhandy gentlemen” remarked on by Troughton and quoted by Raper, as the method seems to have died out in the second half of the 19th century.

Figure 12 : Perpendicularity adjustment of index mirror.

The horizon mirror is secured to its base by a similar clip (Figure 13). It has to be possible to bring the horizon mirror perpendicular to the plane of the arc and to bring it parallel to the index mirror when the instrument reads zero. Navigational texts refer to removing side and index error respectively. Again, modern practice is simply to move the mirror in its mount by means of screws bearing on its back, but 18th and early 19th century makers favoured more complex approaches.

Figure 13 : Horizon mirror clip.

The horizon mirror clip holds the mirror against a bracket atop the tilting base (Figure 14). The latter has two nipples that sit in depressions in the rotating sub-base and can be tilted against spring pressure by means of the side error adjusting screw. The rotating base has a tapered shaft that passes through the frame, where it is secured in a square hole in a swing arm (Figure 15). The securing screw allows play in the bearing to be taken up, while the square ensures that no rotational forces are transmitted to the securing screw.

Figure 14 ; Horizon mirror adjustment 1.

The end of the swing arm has a half-nut at its end that engages with a worm that is held captive in a fabricated brass mounting (Figure 15). Rotating the worm against the half-nut moves the end of the swing arm and in turn causes the mirror base to rotate. The swing arm can be locked in position by a locking screw and washer. Figure 16 shows the mechanism assembled.

Figure 15 : Horizon mirror adjustment 2.

Figure 16 : Horizon mirror adjustment 3.

An octant of this quality and period might well have been provide with only a pin hole sight, but as I had a spare 19th century telescope, I elected to make a mounting for it. A thread had to be machined inside a brass ring to suit the telescope (Figure 17) and then it was simply a matter of turning a pillar of the correct height and silver-soldering the ring to it. Figure 18 shows the completed article.

Figure 17 : Screw-cutting telescope ring.

Figure 18 : Completed telescope mounting.

The bag of parts unfortunately did not contain any horizon shades, but as there was a hole for them in the brass mounting plate I could scarcely pretend that none had ever been fitted and I had to set to and make the shades together with their mounting, using traditional methods. I began with the mounts themselves by cutting out three pieces from 3 mm brass plate using a piercing saw having first very carefully marked out the centres. I then clamped all three plates together and drilled through them so that they could all be filed to the same shape and size. Modern laser cutting machinery would make this the work of minutes, but I had to use traditional “cheaters”, discs of hard metal that are clamped either side of the work piece to guide a file. Figure 19 shows the rough sawn parts ready for coarse filing and Figure 20 shows them filed nearly to size along side a fine file.

Figure 19 : Cheaters in place and coarse file.

Figure 20 : Fine filing close to completion.

Figure 21 shows the parts separated, the exterior shape round enough to be held in a lathe chuck for drilling and boring while Figure 22 shows the mounts completed and ready to receive discs of coloured glass which, I confess, only appear to have been swaged into place. Modern acrylic cement unites them to the mounts.

Figure 21: Mounts ready for drilling and boring.

Figure 22 : Shade mounts ready to receive glass.

Examining several mountings suggested that they are fabricated from several parts : a pillar, a base (shown with machining nearly complete in Figure 23) and two discs for cheeks that will receive the tapered cross pin that holds the mounts in place and which are silver soldered to the semi-circular groove machined in the base (Figure 23).

Figure 23 : Base for pillar and cheeks.

Figure 24 shows all the various parts assembled. Once the cheeks were in place, spacing washers and the tapered cross pin could be made to size and then a tapered hole reamed through the sandwich of cheeks, washers and shades. I made  the holes through the washers a little undersize so that when the pin was pulled home by a screw (seen in Figure 24), the washers would not turn on the pin and motion of one shade would not be transferred to its neighbours.

Figure 24 : Shades aseembled in mounting.

Figure 25 shows the structure of the index arm bearing. It is simply two brass or bronze washers let into each side of the frame and secured there by two pins whose heads have been rivetted over. The slightely tapere journal of the index arm fits in the bearing and is adjusted by the familiar screw and washer fitted to a square on the end of the journal (Figure 26).

Figure 25 : Index arm bearing and journal.

Figure 26 : Fitting of index arm bearing.

When restoring an antique instrument it is sometimes hard to decide how far to go. Common sense suggests that the exposed brass parts were probably painted or lacquered black, or sometimes chemically blackened. Sometimes traces of the original finish can be found, but not in this case, so for the time being I have compromised and lacquered only the optical parts. I do not myself feel that doing so devalues the instrument. Its age speaks for itself from its design and structure, so that there is no need for verdigris and thick layers of “antique” dirt. Perhaps readers will let me have their opinions. Figures 27 and 28 show front and back views in its (for the time being…) finished state. All that remains is to make a case.

Figure 27 : Front (left-hand) view.

Figure 28 : Rear (right hand) view.

If you have enjoyed reading this account, I am sure you will enjoy reading my book “The Nautical Sextant“, and your purchasing it will help me to ensure that more sextants are restored to a normal life.