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An equatorium (plural, equatoria) is an astronomical calculating instrument. It can be used for finding the positions of the Moon, Sun, and planets without calculation, using a geometrical model to represent the position of a given celestial body.
The earliest extant record of a solar equatorium, that is, one to find the position of the sun, is found in Proclus's fifth-century work Hypostasis, where he gives instructions on how to construct one in wood or bronze. Although planetary equatoria were also probably made by the ancient Greeks, the first surviving description of one is from the Libros del saber de astronomia (Books of the knowledge of astronomy), a Castilian compilation of astronomical works collected under the patronage of Alfonso X of Castile in the thirteenth century, which includes translations of two eleventh century Arabic texts on equatoria by Ibn al‐Samḥ and al-Zarqālī. Theorica Planetarum (c. 1261-1264) by Campanus of Novara describes the construction of an equatorium, the earliest known description in Latin Europe.
Richard of Wallingford (1292–1336) is known to have built a sophisticated equatorium named Albion in 1326. It could calculate lunar, solar and planetary longitudes. Unlike most equatoria, the Albion could also predict eclipses. The device is described in a manuscript and in drawings by the Abbot. It consisted of several rotating disks, showing the courses of the sun, moon and stars. These disks were operated manually. It was not a clockwork mechanism.
The inventor of the Equatorium, Al-Zarqali, was an Arab Muslim instrument maker, mathematician, and leading astronomer at the time. Al-Zarqali based the equatorium off the Universal Astrolabe, yet made it more accurate and specialized. He was the first to show clearly the motion of the solar apogee, when the sun is furthest from earth, is 12.0 seconds per year (the actual value is 11.8 seconds per year). Al-Zarqali also corrected Ptolemy's work, calculating that the length of the Mediterranean Sea was at 42°, while Ptolemy said it was 62°. His work was even quoted multiple times in Nicolaus Copernicus's “De Revolutionibus Orbium Celestium” where he discussed the revolution of the celestial orbs. Even though Al-Zaqali's work was based on the belief that the earth was at the center of the universe, many of his primary concepts still apply to the modern world of astronomy.
The model of Ptolemy that was used by Al-Zarqali to create the equatorium put the earth at the center of the universe. The Equatorium was based on the notion that the stars were on a large sphere, where the earth is right in the middle of it held in place by air. Ptolemy theorized that all of the stars moved around the earth every single day, and the motion of the sun, moon, and planets surrounded it. He believed that each planet moved on a small sphere or circle, called an epicycle, that moved on a larger sphere or circle, called a “deferent” which contains the earth at the center. The epicycle and deferent are the basis of what the equatorium was built on.
The history of the equatorium does not just end after the 11th Century but it inspired a more diverse invention called “The Albion”. The Albion is an astronomical instrument invented by Richard of Wallingford at the beginning of the 14th Century. It has various functional uses such as that of the equatorium for planetary and conjunction computations. It can calculate when eclipses will occur. The Albion is made up of 18 different scales which makes it extremely complex in comparison to the equatorium. The history of this instrument is still disputed to this day, as the only Albion from the past is both unnamed and unmarked.
Astrolabe compared with equatorium
In the early 1000 CE (11th Century), the Equatorium was invented by Abū Ishāq Ibrāhīm Al-Zarqālī. To understand where the roots of the Equatorium began, look back to what inspired it: the Astrolabe. The history of the Astrolabe dates back to roughly 220 BC and was invented by Hipparchus. The difference between the two instruments is that the Astrolabe measures the time and position of the sun and stars at a specific location in time. There are also specialized astrolabes for land and for boats. The Astrolabe works by adjusting the moveable components (labels) to a specific date and time. Afterward, line up the astrolabe with the horizon by holding it up and setting one end of the label to where one end is at eye level and the opposite end is pointed towards whichever celestial structure you want to view. In contrast, the equatorium is a rarer astronomical instrument. It is used to calculate the past or future positions of the planets and celestial bodies according to the planetary theory of Ptolemy. What is similar about these tools is that they are both calculating devices that simplify and efficiently make geometrical calculations.
The equatorium can further be specialized depending on the epicycle. There are three possible epicycles that can be adjusted to serve for planetary positions in three groups: the moon, the stars, and the sun. The sun was considered a planet in the Ptolemaic system, hence why the equatorium could be used to determine its position. Through the use of Ptolemy's model, astronomers were able to make a single instrument with various capabilities that catered to the belief that the solar system had the earth at the center. In fact, specialized equatorium's had astrological aspects of medicine, as the orientation of planets gave insight to zodiac signs which helped some doctors cater medical treatments to patients.
At least 15 minutes was needed to calculate the planetary position with the use of a table for each celestial body. A horoscope of that era would have required the positions of seven astronomical objects, requiring nearly two hours of manual calculation time.
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- Antikythera mechanism
- Armillary sphere
- Astronomical clock
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