astrolabe (ăsˈtrəlāb) [key], instrument probably used originally for measuring the altitudes of heavenly bodies and for determining their positions and movements. Although its origin is ancient and obscure, its invention is frequently ascribed either to Hipparchus or to Apollonius of Perga. For many centuries it was used by both astronomers and navigators. A simple astrolabe consisted of a disk of wood or metal with the circumference marked off in degrees. It was suspended by an attached ring. Pivoted at the center of the disk was a movable pointer called by Arab astronomers the alidade. By sighting with the alidade and taking readings of its position on the graduated circle, angular distances could be determined. Mariners, if sufficiently skilled in navigation, could use the astrolabe to determine latitude, longitude, and time of day and as an aid in making other calculations. It was much used on voyages of discovery in the 15th cent. and was important until the invention of the sextant in the 18th cent. The more elaborate astrolabes bore a star map (the planisphere, a circular map, was added by Hipparchus), a zodiacal circle, and various other useful or decorative devices.
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