Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Researching King Arthur’s Table at the Adler Planetarium

This post is cross-posted from the blog of the Adler Planetarium, Chicago, USA.  It was written after a research visit I made to the Adler in June 2013.

Tucked away on the lower level of the Adler Planetarium is the Webster Institute for the History of Astronomy.  It may be located way below the Grainger Sky Theater, but it can still inspire cosmic wonder in historians like me.
“King Arthur’s Table” – an equatorium built for Derek de Solla Price in 1952.
Courtesy of the Whipple Museum of the History of Science, Cambridge
I’m a student at the University of Cambridge, and I was lucky enough to visit the Webster Institute in June.  I’d been researching a fourteenth century manuscript which describes an equatorium.  An equatorium is similar in some ways to the astrolabes you can see in the Universe in Your Hands exhibition, but instead of tracking the motions of the Sun and stars, it computes the positions of the planets.

My manuscript was first discovered in 1951, by the historian Derek de Solla Price.  Price is now famous as the “father of scientometrics” – the scientific study of science – but back then he was just a student.  When he found the manuscript in Cambridge’s Perne Library, he immediately suspected it had been written by the poet and astronomer Geoffrey Chaucer.  He presented his research at the Royal Society, and to make his presentation more impressive he had a full-scale model of the equatorium built, following the manuscript instructions to the letter.

A page from Derek de Solla Price’s astrolabes notebook.
Derek J. De Solla Price Papers, Adler Planetarium.
The model has a great story – it was dumped in a storage facility, forgotten, given the nickname “King Arthur’s Table” and only rediscovered last year.  And it has plenty to tell us about the way that historians and museums work.  Luckily for me, the Adler is the home of the Derek de Solla Price Papers.  They contain an unparalleled range of his publications and personal papers, so it was a joy for me to be able to access them with the help of archivist Jodi Lacy.

Among the papers I found Price’s complete résumé, allowing me to check many facts about his life and studies.  There were his own hand-drawn diagrams of astrolabes he’d seen all over the world.  There was a guide to the Whipple Museum of the History of Science, where I work, written before the Museum even opened in 1951.  And there was an article about the ever-increasing specialization of scientists, which Price wrote for his college newspaper in 1941, when he was just nineteen.

It all gave me a deeper knowledge of the life and work of this great historian and sociologist.  The materials I found have already informed conference papers I have presented, and they will continue to be useful in my research. Thanks to everyone at the Adler for their help.

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