Friday 18 October 2013

A Nocturnal for Nocturne

The Maritime Museum of the Atlantic participated in Halifax's late-night arts festival Nocturne on Saturday October 19, 2013. We found the perfect connection to this year's Nocturne theme of " Time and Space". It is a very old navigational instrument called a "nocturnal". Sailors used nocturnals to tell the time at sea using the position of stars in space.

1) The Museum's Nocturnal. MMA, M2013.19.1

Our nocturnal is one of the oldest instruments in the Museum collection. As indicated by its inscription, this nocturnal was made in 1733 for Captain Hugh Molloy. This particular nocturnal is believed to have been brought to Canada from Ireland by Charles Moffitt who settled in Fredericton, New Brunswick, in May of 1846. It was kindly donated to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic this year by Vaughan McManus through the efforts of museum registrar Lynn Marie Richard who drove all the way to Fredericton to safely transport the nocturnal to Halifax.

 2) Detail of the nocturnal recently donated by Vaughan McManus. MMA, M2013.19.1

It is elegantly cut and beautifully inscribed for a very practical purpose. As its name implies, the nocturnal was deployed at night using particular stars as reference points. It evolved from more complex astronomical instruments like the astrolabe. Conceived by Michel Coignet in 1581, nocturnals are really simple analogue computers. Compared to other instruments which require mathematical tables and trigonometry, the Nocturnal is delightfully simple to use. You set the date with one ring, point it at the North Star using the hole in the centre and then swing the pointer to the Big Dipper to read off the time. Nocturnals are reliably accurate to within 15 minutes. Our nocturnal has settings for GB, the constellation Great Bear (or Big Dipper) and LB, the Little Bear (or Little Dipper).

3)  How-to guide for the Nocturnal, The Use of a Nocturnal, by Petrius Apian, Antwerp 1545

Timekeeping was very important to navigators at sea. Precise time was needed to use tide tables to safely enter harbours and to regulate work shifts aboard known as the watch schedule. Time was also essential to navigation using dead reckoning where you planned to sail a certain direction for a set amount of time and then change your course. Mess up the time and you'd find yourself sailing straight into hazards like Sable Island, the graveyard of the Atlantic.  By the middle of the 18th century more accurate clocks started to become available, eventually producing the very accurate clocks known as chronometers and the nocturnal fell out of use.

4) The Museum's Nocturnals - Original, left, and Replica, right.

We are displayed our newly donated nocturne for the first time during Halifax's Nocturne: Art at Night festival and invited our visitors to try their hand at using one, guided by instrument expert and Museum Research Associate Randall Brooks. The museum's Curator of Visitor Experience Lee Schuette oversaw the creation of several lovely working replicas of our 280-year-old nocturnal. The replica nocturnals allowed Randall to demonstrate the use of the nocturnal and allow visitors to try their hand. In a bit of a living history experiment, we found that a slight cloud cover and and a bright 21st century urban sky foiled our use of this 18th century instrument but we will try again on colder and clearer nights.

5) A nocturnal view of the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic at from the wharves. MMA, Ian Mullan

With our location beside the harbour, the Museum is often a magical place at night. We demonstrated the nocturnal three times in between the sounds of traditional sea-faring songs and stories told by members and friends from the Helen Creighton Folklore Society including Clary Croft, Vince Morash, Dan McKinnon and Kate Dunley. There were of course all kinds of wonderful artistic presentations and activities all over downtown Halifax during Nocturne. You can find more information at the website for Nocturne: Art at Night.

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