Fleuriais’ Marine Distance Meter

4 11 2012

This post was preceded by  ” A Stuart Distance Meter”;“A Russian Naval Dip Meter”; and  “An Improvised Dip Meter”

In 1890, Admiral Georges Ernest Fleuirais (1840 to 1895) published a description of his “Micrometre à réflexion”. At the time, he was Director of the Cartographic Department of the French Navy and he had had a distinguished scientific career. He had led an expedition to Santa Cruz in Patagonia, as part of an international effort to observe the transit of Venus on December 6th, 1882. The international cooperation led to the solar parallax being established as 8.847 ± 0.012 seconds, allowing the distance of the Sun to be calculated as 92,384,000 miles (148,677,000 km). He also invented a sextant provided with a gyroscopic artificial horizon.

His micrometre was in fact a marine distance meter, in which the angle subtended by an object of known height is used to calculate its distance. For example, if the mast head of a distant ship is known to be 30 metres above the water line and the angle between the masthead and the waterline is 2 degrees, the ship lies  approximately 30/ tan 2 º = 860 metres away. I recently acquired a French Navy Fleuriais Micrometer, as it is a doubly reflecting instrument of the sextant type, and was able to examine it in detail.

Figure 1: View of front (left-hand-side).

It is immediately obvious that it is a sextant-type instrument. It has a radius of about 85 mm, a plate brass frame about 4 mm thick and two mirrors which, for want of better terms have to be called the index and horizon mirror, even though the horizon is not usually viewed through either. Instead of the usual arc, the instrument has a micrometer which  looks much more like an early engineer’s micrometer than the typical sextant micrometer which, in any case, had yet to be invented by C Plath in about 1907. The periphery of the drum is divided into 100 minutes and 12 turns of the screw, as denoted on the index, cover an observed angle of 1200 minutes, or 20 degrees (Peter Ifland in his Taking the Stars incorrectly writes that the drum is divided to read 1/100th of a degree). As the drum is rotated, the micrometer screw advances through an adjustable nut and presses on the capstan head of a screw attached to the end of the index arm, thus rotating the index mirror. A spring takes up any backlash between the head of the capstan screw , the micrometer screw and the nut . The nut can also be closed up to adjust the clearance between it and the screw (Figure 2). Legs on the face of the instrument allow it to be put down without changing hands. The Galilean telescope is x 3 power with an objective lens of 24 mm diameter.

Figure 2: Details of adjustments

The capstan headed screw is used to adjust out index error, while another screw acts on the base of the horizon mirror to adjust out side error if required, though in such instruments a little side error is helpful while having a negligible effect on the accuracy of the observations. The base of the mirror bracket is slotted and a captive screw is used to close or open the slot in order to tilt the mirror (Figure 3). No provision is made to adjust the index mirror for perpendicularity.

Figure 3: Side error adjustment.

Figure 4 shows the almost featureless rear or right hand side of the instrument. The traditionally shaped handle can be held comfortably either way up, so that observer who wishes to hold the instrument in his left hand may do so at the cost of some slight discomfort while operating the micrometer.

Figure 4: Rear (right hand side) of instrument.

Early instruments were provided with a drum fitting around the telescope to convert the angle reading to a distance, but later ones came with a circular slide rule devised by  Commander Émile Guyou,( 1843 – 1915) shown in Figure 5. The index arrow was set against the height of the object on the outer circle and its distance in metres read off the inner scale opposite the angle in minutes on the outer scale. In the figure, the index is set at about 91.8 and if the micrometer had read 60 minutes (1 degree), then the distance could be read off as about 5,260 metres.mile

Figure 5: Guyou’s circular slide rule.

While I continue to acquire, restore and describe sextants, I also have a small collection of chronometers, and have recently completed a book The Mariner’s Chronometer which will be available via amazon.com from 10 November 2012.

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