This rare early American binnacle features a great looking bronze lid with a nice patina in a classic mushroom shape. Also includes its original oil lantern. The binnacle also features brass at the base, iron correcting spheres and a fine wood base.
Riggs Brothers was founded in 1818 by William H.C. Riggs originally making clocks but later expanded into advanced nautical instruments like binnacles, chronometers and compasses as well as charts to local sailors and the US Government. They were a top supplier and instrument maker and this is the first complete binnacle by the company we have ever had. Old photos of the Riggs Brothers shop location at 310 Market Street in Philadelphia show a wooden statue of a mariner using a sextant above the door. This statue is now in the collection of the Independence Seaport Museum also in Philadelphia.
A binnacle is an extremely important instrument aboard ship- so much so that many ships had several in order to ensure they did not veer off course. More than just a compass, a binnacle is a complete housing for the ship’s compass and a number of other parts which correct it, including magnets and iron objects.
Magnetic compasses have been around for more than a thousand years and at first, binnacles were not much more than a protective stand or housing for the ship’s compass, so vital at sea, particularly when a ship was not in sight of land.
Later, as more metals were used in ship construction, these caused magnetic interference with the ship’s compasses which required correction to get an accurate reading on a ship’s position and direction. As these impacts and magnetism in general were better understood, binnacles were changed to include other magnets and metals to correct these errors. In the latter half of the 19th century the use of iron cladding on hulls and more metal weaponry aboard required greater and greater measures within the binnacle to correct the compass.
A binnacle generally includes a gimbal to keep the compass in a horizontal position even in rolling seas, a lamp of some sort to read it in dim lighting, a shade to read it in bright sunlight, and in the 19th century version, below the compass was a series of magnets on screws or a rack and pinions. The iconic iron spheres on either side of the binnacle, usually painted red and green for the port and starboard sides of the ship, are also part of those corrections.
The adjustment of a binnacle required a professional Compass Adjuster who manipulated the magnets and iron within to properly correct the compass. Errors depended on a ship’s heading and even the most skilled Adjustor couldn’t get it exactly right and they would create a Deviation Card for the compass- the amount which a navigator had to compensate for in their calculations, for all potential headings of the ship.
Ships were required to have their compass adjusted when launched and then every two years afterward, though a good navigator would be checking daily either by observing land nearby or through celestial observation.
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