An octant is a measuring instrument used primarily in navigation. The name “octant” derives from the Latin “octans” meaning eighth part of a circle, because the instrument’s arc is one eighth of a circle. It is a type of reflecting instrument.
Two men independently developed the octant around 1730: John Hadley (1682–1744), an English mathematician, and Thomas Godfrey (1704–1749), a glazier in Philadelphia.
The octant provided a number of advantages over previous instruments.
1. It provided both longitudinal and latitude measurements that allowed navigation on open seas.
2. The sight was easy to align because the horizon and the star seem to move together as the ship pitched and rolled. This also created a situation where the error in observation was less dependent on the observer, as he could directly see both objects at once.
3. With the use of the manufacturing techniques available in the 18th century, the instruments were capable of very accurate readings. The size of the instruments was reduced with no less of accuracy.
Octants were produced in large numbers into the 19th century. In wood and ivory, their relatively low price compared to an all-brass sextant (which was a larger instrument developed after the octant) made them a popular instrument. The design was standardized with many manufacturers using the identical frame style and components. Different shops could make different components, with woodworkers specializing in frames and others in the brass components.
The octant revolutionized maritime navigation by making a high-quality product that was affordable and simple to use.
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