Sunday, May 24, 2015

Some Old Brandis Surveying Instruments

The Brandis serial number chronology presented in the post ‘What do the Numbers 3500 and 1542 Tell Us? Part Two’ provides a pretty narrow range for the date of manufacture of the hypothetical Brandis #3500/USNO#1542 sextant, but it only sparsely covers the first decade of the 20th century.  This earlier period won’t help us date the Nikumaroro sextant box, but developing as complete a Brandis serial chronology is a good thing nonetheless.  Four time points for the 1900-1910 period can be established thanks to Robert Parrish of  Robert’s impressive collection of surveying instruments includes six Brandis surveying instruments that can be dated in a very straightforward way: they are marked with the year in which they were manufactured.  The Brandis serial numbers and dates are listed in the table below.

Instrument Brandis Number Date
Wye Level 2106 1905
Theodolite 2225 1906
Surveying 2290 1906
Theodolite 2309 1907

In the photos below we can see how these markings appear on two instruments, a Wye level and a theodolite.

Photos Courtesy of Robert Parrish

Both instruments have the date-appropriate firm name of ‘F.E. Brandis, Sons & Co’, and both are marked “The President Borough of Richmond”, presumably their original owner (the ‘Borough of Richmond’ is very likely the part of New York City commonly called Staten Island).  The Wye level, Brandis #2106, is marked with the number 1905, while the theodolite, Brandis #2225, is marked with the number 1906; Robert thinks all of these markings were factory-engraved.  Can we be sure that the 1905 and 1906 are dates and not owner serial numbers?  I think we can, because another of Robert’s surveying instruments, Brandis #2290, is also marked 1906.  It’s not clear whether Brandis #2290 was also owned by the Borough of Richmond, but if it was, it would make little sense for it to be marked with the same owner’s serial number as Brandis #2225; if Brandis #2290 had a different owner then it would be quite a coincidence for it to have the same owner’s serial number as Brandis #2225.  I also note that 1905 and 1906 make sense as the years in which these instruments were made: they post-date the establishment of the Borough of Richmond in 1898 and they pre-date the 1911 delivery date of the sextant with Brandis serial number 2763 discussed in What do the Numbers 3500 and 1542 Tell Us? Part Two, as they should if lower Brandis serial numbers correspond to earlier manufacture dates.  Robert Parrish cautions that some instrument manufacturers assigned blocks of serial numbers to a single type of instrument or a single worker, which would tend to disrupt any order between manufacture date and manufacturer’s serial number; so far, I am not seeing signs of such discontinuities in the Brandis serial number chronology.

I’ll post an updated Brandis serial number chronology table that incorporates these surveying instruments, the Brandis #3249 peephole sextant, and any other datable Brandis instruments that might happen to come along; I’m hoping to get useful dating on one or two more Brandis instruments, so I may wait for a little while before updating the table.

Note added,  June 2018:  This post originally included information about two other Brandis instruments Robert Parrish provided date of manufacture information for, however I later realized these were not instruments owned by Mr. Parrish and will discuss them in a separate post.  Also, I should soon be publishing the long-promised revised Brandis serial number chronology table.

Comments, corrections, additional relevant facts, differing viewpoints, etc., are always welcome (no one will be banned, blocked, or castigated for offering differing opinions).  Send corespondance to  

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

A Strange Beast

While I’m not intending to make posts about every new Brandis instrument that turns up, a very interesting Brandis sextant and box appeared on eBay yesterday that I think is worth commenting about.  The sextant, Brandis #3249/USNO#836, is marked with the ‘Brandis & Sons, Mfg Co.’ firm name, and seems at first glance to be a common run-of-the-mill Brandis surveying sextant.  I noticed that the sextant didn’t have a telescope, but it’s not so unusual for sextant components to go missing from sextant boxes over the decades.  I also noticed that the sextant box was marked with the later ‘Brandis & Sons, Inc’ firm name marking, but a number of sextants that have turned up for sale are no longer in their original boxes, so that didn’t seem so unusual, either.  Then, taking a closer look at the photos of the sextant in the box, I realized this sextant wasn’t your average Brandis surveying sextant.  It wasn’t missing its telescope—it probably never had one.  Where a telescope would normally be attached there was instead an odd, two-wheeled contraption. 

I’ve never seen a sextant like this one before, but I’m no sextant expert so I alerted someone who is a true authority on sextants about this sextant.  He told me he had never seen anything like it either.  One of the two wheels contains four small glass windows, and I suspect each of them is tinted to a different degree.  It would appear that the idea here is that the user can rotate this wheel to align one of the four tinted windows with a peephole in the other wheel, and then sight objects through the sextant’s mirrors.  My sextant expert friend pointed out that there are situations in which one might want a wider field of view than is obtained using a sextant telescope.  He also told me (to borrow closely from his message to me) that telescopes were seldom used in small vessels before 'zero magnification sighting tubes' became the norm, and that Captain Cook on the voyage of the Resolution had wondered whether the use of a telescope had anything to offer.  My friend also said that he himself recently was sailing in rough seas and found that he needed to remove his sextant’s telescope to bring the sun down and then replace the telescope to make his final readings.  So, as best I can figure, it would seem that Brandis #3249/USNO #836 was made for use in situations in which high precision measurements were not needed or were not possible.  If anyone thinks they’ve got a better explanation, or if my sextant expert friend finds that I’ve misunderstood what he has tried to explain to me, I am quite happy to be corrected.

Another thing that is very interesting here is that, as I mentioned above, the firm name marking of the box does not match the firm name marking of the sextant.  It could be that Brandis #3249 is just another example of a sextant that got separated from its original sextant box, but I’m not so sure that is the case.  Brandis #3249/USNO#836 fits snugly in the box it is in, and the box does not contain the usual telescope holders, so the box appears in this regard to have been made to accommodate the sextant it currently houses.  On the other hand, the sextant box has a holder for shade glasses that this sextant does not have, and so in this respect the sextant and box don’t match. In a previous post, I showed that the change from the ‘Mfg Co.’ firm name marking to the ‘Inc.’ firm name marking on Brandis sextants occurred between the making of Brandis #3243 and Brandis #3331.  Here we have in Brandis#3249/USNO#836 a sextant with the earlier firm name marking in a box with the latter firm name marking; I wonder if what we see here is sort of like a missing link fossil that in this case captures that transition in the Brandis firm name.  It seems possible, though not provable, that this sextant and sextant box came out of Brandis during the period it was changing firm names, so the sextant got one name and the sextant box, the other.

Additional thoughts:

(5/7/15) Perhaps what I took to be a holder in the box for (unnecessary) shades is in fact a holder for spare mirrors, though mirrors would seem to be rather delicate items to carry as spares.  Also, it occurs to me that the two-wheeled contraption could have been made at Naval Observatory to replace the usual telescope bracket, so perhaps this was some sort of experimental instrument cooked up at the Naval Observatory.

(5/24/15)  After making this post, I came upon a 19th century octant that is being offered for sale by Antiques of the Sea (, a nautical instrument dealer, shown below.  This instrument uses a peephole sight rather than a telescope; the dealer also is selling another quite old double peephole sight octant.  So, while Brandis #3249 isn’t your typical Brandis sextant, peephole sight instruments were apparently nothing new back when it was manufactured.

Comments, corrections, additional relevant facts, differing viewpoints, etc., are always welcome (no one will be banned, blocked, or castigated for offering differing opinions).  Send corespondance to