The first museum of the University of St Andrews was founded in 1838. However, since then, as the artefact collection has grown, it has moved and expanded. The Bell Pettigrew Museum was opened in 1912, and the Wardlaw Museum did not open in its current location until 2008. In 2018, the Wardlaw Museum underwent a major redevelopment and just recently reopened to the public at the end of June 2021.

Amongst the collections the museum houses, three have had the honour of being recognized as Collections of National Significance, these include the museum’s Chemistry, as well as Scientific Instruments Collections.

One of the most important mathematical items in the Scientific Instruments Collection is the Great Astrolabe. An astrolabe is an astronomical tool that was prominent in the 8th century Islamic world, before coming to Europe in the high Middle Ages, where it remained popular until the 17th century. While astrolabes have other features as well, such as allowing you to determine the latitude, or the altitude of any object, on their simplest level, they allow you to determine the time and date based on the position of the sun and other stars and vice versa.

For more information on how to use an astrolabe, see the following video here.

The Great Astrolabe was constructed in 1575 by Humphrey Cole, a London craftsman famous for his scientific instruments. It is larger than the traditional astrolabe with a diameter of 61 cm and was as such likely a display piece, rather than in practical use. The astrolabe was likely collected for the university by the mathematician James Gregory around 1673. At the same point in time Gregory commissioned a plate for the astrolabe which matched the latitude of St Andrews, allowing for it to be used in that location. Astrolabes are fascinating for the wide range of knowledge they are able to contain in their comparably small physical existence and remain a testament of both scientific accomplishment and practicality. It is for good reason that the Great Astrolabe remains one of the university’s most prized possessions.