Armillary sphere

Armillary sphere

Materials:  brass, wooden base
Dimensions:  12 centimeters high
Place acquired:  Portobello Market, London
Place of manufacture:  unknown

On the face of it the armillary sphere is simply an antique scientific instrument. It dates back perhaps as far as the ancient Greeks, but most surviving examples come from the 18th century. The sphere was used to predict and demonstrate the movement of heavenly bodies as seen from Earth. Essentially it is a moving, three dimensional model of the Earth-centred universe as it was understood at that time.

Although it was a serious piece of observational and calculating equipment used by early astronomers, it emerged in a world where scientific astronomy, and horoscopic astrology were still linked, so the belt of the zodiac, which features prominently on the sphere, has a mixed purpose, still poised somewhere between a modern concept of science and an earlier one.

But to us the armillary sphere seems to have some added value. Despite, or perhaps because of its quaint antiquity the armillary sphere is somehow symbolic to us of human science and ingenuity. Precision-made, often with expensive polished metals, the armillary sphere is also a dramatic work of art. It’s a piece of kinetic sculpture that is both beautiful and impressive. Just like terrestrial globes these spheres have always had a currency as high status gifts, symbols of wealth, power and culture – impressive pieces of interior and exterior decoration for royals, aristocrats and the upwardly mobile. It is perhaps this type of meaning that is the main motive for this little desk ornament. It looks old but infact was mass-produced some time in the early 2000s by a company called Stanley London, a division of the american gift company Castle Navigation Inc. The blurb on their website says:

‘Stanley London is pleased to offer fine brass reproductions of antique sextants, compasses, telescopes, spheres and other surveying instruments and nautical gifts. These items add sophisticated warmth to an office, and make great gifts for loved ones, collectors and corporate executives.’

The fact that corporate executives are identified as a target market is interesting. What exactly is it about these spheres, compasses and nautical paraphenalia that makes them attractive office ornaments for the business community? Perhaps repro artefacts from Europe’s ‘Age of Discovery’ with their associations of empire-building and colonisation provide an appropriate mascot for modern business.