The Earliest Treatises on the Astrolabe

Although Islamic tradition ascribes the invention of the astrolabe to the Hellenistic astronomer Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria (2nd cent. CE), the origin of this device should probably be placed a few centuries earlier. The stereographic projection, a mathematical method for mapping a sphere on to a plane surface, was already known to Hipparch of Nicaea (2nd cent. BCE) and the Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollo (1st cent BCE) described a water clock with a rotating disk representing the celestial sphere visible at any given day and hour (De Architectura IX 8.8-14).

The Origin of the Astrolabe

Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria (fl. 150)

The astronomer Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria, dressed in royal attire, consulting an astrolabe. Below, in Greek with a Latin translation, an epigram from the Anthologia Graeca attributed to Ptolemy. Miniature from a Byzantine manuscript (dated c. 1453) of his Geographica (Venice, Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, ms. Cod. Gr. Z. 388, coll. 333, fol. 6v).
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Among the preserved works of Ptolemy is a short treatise, the Planispaerium, which discusses the projection of circles on a sphere on to a plane surface and also mentions a “horoscopic instrument” (horoscopio instrumento), which probably refers to an early version of the astrolabe. The original Greek text is lost but the work survives in an Arabic translation made around, or before, 900 by an unknown translator.

This translation was also known in Muslim Spain, where the Andalusian astronomer-mathematician Maslama ibn Ahmad al-Majrītī († 1007/08) wrote a commentary on it which was translated into Latin in 1143, in Tolosa, by Hermann of Carinthia.

Johannes Philoponus of Alexandria (c. 495 - c. 570)

Based on a now lost work on the astrolabe by Theon of Alexandria (c. 375 CE).

Severus Sebokt (c. 650)

Based on a now lost work on the astrolabe by Theon of Alexandria (c. 375 CE).