Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: sextant from Philip's Encyclopedia

Optical instrument for finding latitude (angular distance N or S of the Equator). A sextant consists of a frame with a curved scale marked in degrees, a movable arm with a mirror at the pivot, a half-silvered glass and a telescope. The instrument measures the angle of a heavenly body above the horizon, which depends on the observer's latitude. A set of tables gives the corresponding latitude for various angles measured.

Summary Article: sextant
from The Columbia Encyclopedia

instrument for measuring the altitude of the sun or another celestial body; such measurements can then be used to determine the observer's geographical position or for other navigational, surveying, or astronomical applications. The term sextant is used generally to include related devices such as the quadrant, quintant, and octant. The sextant was invented independently in England and America in 1731. Its construction is based on the principle that a reflected ray of light leaves a plane surface at the same angle at which the direct ray strikes the surface. The sextant consists basically of a triangular frame, the bottom of which is a graduated arc of 60°; a telescope is attached horizontally to the plane of the frame. A small index mirror is mounted perpendicular to the frame at the top of a movable index arm or bar, which swings along the arc. In front of the telescope is the horizon glass, half transparent and half mirror. The image of the sun or other body is reflected from the index mirror to the mirror half of the horizon glass and then into the telescope. If the index (or image) arm is then adjusted so that the horizon is seen through the transparent half of the horizon glass, with the reflected image of the sun lined up with it, the sun's altitude can be read from the position of the index arm on the arc. By reference to navigational tables, the geographical position can then be determined. A sextant may be used on land with an "artificial horizon"—a small, shallow receptacle containing mercury, which gives a truly horizontal surface. In aerial navigation a bubble octant—sometimes called a bubble sextant—is used, in which a spirit level is reflected into the field of view in such a way that the center of the bubble indicates the true horizon.

The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2017

Related Articles

Full text Article The hydrometer
DK Eyewitness Books: Earth

Oceanic water was sampled by Challenger to discover how salinity and temperature vary with depth and location. This...

Full text Article sextant
Britannica Concise Encyclopedia

Instrument for determining the angle between the horizon and a celestial body—such as the Sun, the Moon, or a star—used in celestial navigation to

Full text Article Sextant
The Encyclopedia of Tourism and Recreation in Marine Environments

A sextant is an instrument used to determine the position of a ship at sea. The navigator uses the sextant to measure the altitude of the sun or...

See more from Credo