Champlain’s Astrolabe
Found in 1867

CMC S92-7972
Astrolabe, 1603
Found in 1867 near Cobden, Ontario

Collection of the Canadian Museum of Civilization
If this hypothesis is correct, the astrolabe remained where it had fallen for 254 years. In 1867, it was found by a fourteen-year-old farm boy named Edward Lee, who could not have foreseen the historical importance of the strange object.

Captain Cowley, who operated a steamboat on nearby Muskrat Lake, offered Lee ten dollars for the astrolabe. Lee gave it to him but never received any money. Cowley sold the astrolabe to R.W. Cassels of Toronto, president of the Ottawa Forwarding Company, for whom he worked. He in turn sold it to Samuel Hoffman, a New York collector. In 1942, the astrolabe was willed to the American Historical Society, and it remained in the society's collection until June 1989, when it was acquired by the Department of Communications for the Canadian Museum of Civilization.

The astrolabe that is thought to belong to Champlain is unique. It is the smallest of the thirty-five mariner's astrolabes surviving from the early part of the seventeenth century, and the only one from France. Although meant to be used vertically to measure the position of the sun at its zenith, all the quadrants of the disc are graduated. Thus it could also be used horizontally as a surveyor's tool.

The astrolabe is in good condition and intact, except for a small ring that was attached to the bottom edge of the outer disc and from which a weight could be suspended to keep the instrument plumb. The ring appears in an 1879 photograph, so it probably fell off in the late nineteenth century.

In 1613, Champlain travelled up the Ottawa River as far as the Algonquin village on île aux Allumettes. The Algonquins, wary of the European intrusion into their territory, deterred Champlain from going farther by telling him that Vignau had lied about the route. It did, however, exist: the English explorer Henry Hudson had reached Hudson Bay in 1610.

What Is an Astrolabe?

An astrolabe is one of the oldest navigational instruments in existence, dating back to 170 B.C. It served several purposes over the centuries. It was first used to tell time, then to determine latitude. In the sixteenth century, a simpler model, the mariner's astrolabe, was developed to meet the more limited needs of navigators.

To use the mariner's astrolabe, the navigator aligned its axis with the horizon. He then directed the pointer, or alidade, at the sun or the North Star and read the angle of inclination on the graduated disc. Once he got a reading, the navigator consulted mathematical tables and then determined the latitude of the place he was at.


    Last Updated: September 1, 2009