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Author Topic: Side issue: Why are all these sextants in the wrong boxes?  (Read 2446 times)

Brian Tannahill

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Side issue: Why are all these sextants in the wrong boxes?
« on: October 18, 2018, 09:02:31 PM »

If you read the items about the sextants that appear on the auction sites, you know that many or most of the sextants are not in their original boxes.  How did they end up in the wrong boxes?

Sextant 4672, for example, is in the box for sextant 4667.  This is probably not important at all, but I'm curious how it happened.

Here are some possible explanations.


1.  Multiple sextants were were in use on a ship at the same time, and they were put away in the wrong boxes.

Probably not.  Was it common practice to use two or more sextants at the same time?  I'll defer to anyone who served on a ship, but I doubt it.

Does anyone know how many sextants would be found on a ship at sea?


2.  Sextants were left out of their boxes while not being used, and were eventually returned to whichever box was convenient. 

This doesn't seem likely.  I'd be surprised if regulations allowed storing sextants in whatever box was handy -- the military often takes minor details to an extreme.  Of course people don't always follow the rules.

Also, the military has a general culture of taking good care of important or expensive equipment.  Part of that would be to store the equipment properly.  Would a navigator make a practice of leaving a sextant sitting on a shelf or a tabletop between uses?  On board a ship at sea?  I'll defer to someone who's been there, but it doesn't make sense to me. 


3.  The Naval Observatory switched the boxes when sextants were sent in for calibration. 

Probably not, but who knows?  I can't rule this out.


4.  When ships were in port, the sextants were used off-ship for some reason (training?) and not returned to the correct boxes.

This is pure speculation.  It seems possible.  The navy guys are welcome to tell me I'm full of seawater on this one.

So, did sextants stay with a ship?  Or go with an individual?  Or something else?


5.  Sextants and boxes were mixed up after the navy released its surplus sextants following the end of World War I.  The surplus dealers and succeeding owners probably didn't care much about which box they used.

This sounds like the most likely explanation.
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Martin X. Moleski, SJ

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Re: Side issue: Why are all these sextants in the wrong boxes?
« Reply #1 on: October 18, 2018, 11:45:27 PM »

If you read the items about the sextants that appear on the auction sites, you know that many or most of the sextants are not in their original boxes.  How did they end up in the wrong boxes?

"Many," yes.

"Most," no.

I created the new column on the table precisely so that we could get a better estimate (Wrong Sextant / Wrong Box) on the frequency of the mixups.

It is between 20% and 25%, as far as I can tell, for the sextants listed in our table.

Quote
Here are some possible explanations.

We really need testimony from a navigator from that era, if any are still alive and well.  That's a long shot, I guess.  To serve in WW II, they would have had to have been born circa 1922-1927 and would now be in their 90s.  I'll bet most of the survivors aren't following this Forum.
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Pat Fontaine

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Re: Side issue: Why are all these sextants in the wrong boxes?
« Reply #2 on: October 19, 2018, 08:28:31 PM »

I’ll attempt to answer some of Brian’s questions-
The most likely reason sextants might wind up in the wrong box might be when they’re disposed of by the Navy.  At that point, they’re scrap and who cares?   Or if sextant 1 (in box 1) is good but box 1 is bad, and sextant 2 is bad (but it’s box is still serviceable), you put sextant 1 in box 2 (making darn sure to relabel the box).  Does that make sense?
Your question #1. How many sextants were found on a ship at?  It depends on the ship, but no ship had just one when that’s all you had to work your shots.  Smaller ships (escorts, destroyers, frigates and such) might have two or three.  One would be designated as ‘the’ navigator’s sextant, while others would be back ups, used to train others (used at the same time and the navigational results compared with the navigators, etc.).   Larger ships (carriers) might have five or six depending.  Most navigation departments I worked with in my Midshipman days would want to have several - above what the table of organization allowed the ship to have (sailors have a way of obtaining what they feel they need regardless of official regs).
#2.  Recall that a sextant is a precision instrument and each and every one is calibrated by the manufacturer (and subsequently recalibrated several times during its useful service life) to verify its accuracy (and they’re all inaccurate to some degree).  Their calibration corrections were recorded on a small serialized card and this card was either glued to the inside lid of the case, or kept in a small pocket built in to the case for that purpose.   The number on the card matched the number on the sextant; the card was for that particular sextant only and would never be used to correct the readings from another sextant as you would never be sure it had the same calibration errors.   As such, folks would be very serious about putting the sextant back into the correct box (with the proper correction card).
As for leaving it out of the box - sure.  It happened all the time, but never for long.  I remember often being with the navigator (aboard a frigate in the mid-70s) and he would remove the sextant and make sure it was working (had full range of motion,etc), add any necessary filters if he was shooting the noon sun, and we’d go take his shots.  Record the data and return to the chart table where he’d set it aside on the table while we worked the math.  If things worked out to his satisfaction, he’d put it away; if he had a problem or questioned the results, it was easy to go back out and shoot it again.
#3. Would the Naval Observatory switch boxes?  I suppose it would happen occasionally if a sextant was determined to no longer be useful or if the box was no longer useful (Navy doesn’t throw things out), but the box would be renumbered to match the sextant it contained and certainly the old correction card replaced with the one that corrersponded to the new sextant in the box.
#4.  Sextants, like other equipment, would often be removed from a ship.  It might be when the ship was in dry dock for extended periods, or if renovations/modifications were performed that required spaces to be emptied.  Battle damage, etc. also comes to mind.  They were also removed when ships were placed out of service.  They were not necessarily issued back to that same ship; a sextant that was issued for use on a destroyer might be turned in while the destroyer had battle damage repairs.  While turned in, it might/might not be recalibrated, and when issued might wind up on a carrier or submarine.  It just depended on the need and available sextants.  Sextants were assigned to ships (not individuals) based on the ship’s Table of Organization discussed in #1 above.  That said, it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for a navigator to sign for and retain his own sextant (similar to when some officers were issued a service pistol as a Second Lieutenant and kept that same pistol until they were a General Officer).  I don’t believe this happened often.
I hope this helps.  The important thing to remember is that a sextant is only as good as its accompanying calibration card.  Without the card for your specific sextant, you would never be sure of the accuracy and an inaccurate sextant can put your ship in the middle of the Sahara while you think you’re off the coast of Sicily (speaking for a friend...).
Pat
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Martin X. Moleski, SJ

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Re: Side issue: Why are all these sextants in the wrong boxes?
« Reply #3 on: October 20, 2018, 01:31:26 AM »

if sextant 1 (in box 1) is good but box 1 is bad, and sextant 2 is bad (but it’s box is still serviceable), you put sextant 1 in box 2 (making darn sure to relabel the box).  Does that make sense?

Yes, it makes sense, except not one of our mismatched boxes has been relabeled to match the sextants that they actually contain.

WE can tell the difference because we have come to understand some parts of the numbering system.

Quote
#2.  Recall that a sextant is a precision instrument and each and every one is calibrated by the manufacturer (and subsequently recalibrated several times during its useful service life) to verify its accuracy (and they’re all inaccurate to some degree).  Their calibration corrections were recorded on a small serialized card and this card was either glued to the inside lid of the case, or kept in a small pocket built in to the case for that purpose.   The number on the card matched the number on the sextant; the card was for that particular sextant only and would never be used to correct the readings from another sextant as you would never be sure it had the same calibration errors.   As such, folks would be very serious about putting the sextant back into the correct box (with the proper correction card).

Yes, that should be the case (pun intended), but one way we figure out that there is a mismatch is by comparing the collimation slips with the numbers on the instrument itself.  I don't REMEMBER seeing a slip whose numbers did not match Brandis or NO numbers on the box.  I wasn't paying a lot of attention in the early years of this project, and I'm not sure we can double-check this.

Quote
The important thing to remember is that a sextant is only as good as its accompanying calibration card.  Without the card for your specific sextant, you would never be sure of the accuracy and an inaccurate sextant can put your ship in the middle of the Sahara while you think you’re off the coast of Sicily (speaking for a friend...).

This is precisely what piqued my attention while working on the table: we have a lot of sextants in the wrong box with the wrong collimation slip.  It doesn't make sense.  But that is what our little study of a small sample of instruments shows.  Whether there was this same degree of confusion in the 1920s or 1930s is impossible to tell from this data.  We have some idea of present-day facts.  I don't think we know what correlation there might be between our statistics and the distribution of mismatched sextants in the old days.
LTM,

           Marty
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Jeff Christmas

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Re: Side issue: Why are all these sextants in the wrong boxes?
« Reply #4 on: October 21, 2018, 07:24:29 PM »

I, too, have been pondering about the potential reasons for sextants and boxes to be mis-matched. 

For this to accidentally occur there would need to be opportunities for two or more sextants to be in use at the same time.  This could potentially happen on a large ship which may have several sextants on board as suggested by Brian Tannahill, but as has been pointed out by Pat Fontaine the accuracy of the measurements made with these instruments would be paramount.  For this reason the users of these sextants would do their best to be sure that a sextant stayed with its calibration paperwork.  It doesn’t seem reasonable that 25% (the estimate based on the evidence in the TIGHAR sextant list) would be mismatched during typical ship operations as the responsible users would be proactive about keeping these critical records straight.

I noticed something a while back that points to another situation which may be a contributor to the shuffling of sextants and boxes.  The box for Brandis 3667 / Navy 889 has an inventory sticker for Northwestern University (inventory number 4574).  See:
https://www.ebay.com/itm/Vintage-Antique-US-Navy-SEXTANT-Brandis-Sons-w-Wooden-Box-936-missing-pieces/391909847255?hash=item5b3fa5b0d7:g:jCgAAOSwLJ9Z6M9Q:rk:2:pf:1

Interestingly, Northwestern was one of seven locations (as per Wikipedia, so take it with a grain of salt) that participated in the Navy’s V-7 program.  The other locations were the USS Prairie State* (located at the Brooklyn Navy Ship Yards), Columbia University, Cornell University, the University of Notre Dame, Smith College, and Villanova**.  It seems to me that the V-7 program (and perhaps some of the other of the its “V” programs) would be an obvious place for the Navy to dispose of its surplus equipment.  It isn’t clear how disciplined ROTC students or university instructors would be with maintaining the provenance of surplus sextants meant only as training gear.  I’ve done a cursory search of the Northwestern and Cornell web sites looking for scanned documents in hopes -  a long-shot to be sure - of finding equipment lists associated with the V-7 program.  I didn’t find much at Cornell and the paper documents at Northwestern related to V-7 have yet to be scanned.  I did, however, find some interesting digitized films of V-7 drills and training at Northwestern.  [Note:  I also looked at Purdue for documents related to the V-12 program hosted there starting in 1943.  I’ve yet to find anything related to sextants or equipment lists.]

Part of the V-7 curriculum (as per Wikipedia) was “Seamanship”.  I presumed that a class in basic seamanship would cover the use of a sextant, and a couple of the films on the Northwestern library web site seem to back this up.  Here is a film that shows Midshipmen at Northwestern “Shooting the Sun”: https://media.northwestern.edu/media_objects/g732d9128.  The section showing this part of the training starts at 7:48 and continues until 7:54.  The film also contains a short clip of a Midshipman apparently shooting the sun during a cruise.  This lasts from 8:50 to 8:58.  I had imagined that a Brandis instrument would be larger than that being used by the Midshipmen, but upon re-reading some of the notes on the TIGHAR site realized that the Brandis sextants may not be nearly as large as I had thought.  Do the instruments in these clips look like the Brandis and Sons sextants to the forum?  Here is another film that shows a sextant being used during a cruise on board the USS Wilmette (IX-29): https://media.northwestern.edu/media_objects/wd375w385.  The clip lasts from 3:21 until 3:32.  The instrument being used does not appear to be one of the Brandis sextants that the forum has been tracking.  Perhaps it was a newer sextant that was in service on board the USS Wilmette.

Jeff Christmas

*- This is NOT Prairie State College.  The USS Prairie State was a converted battleship USS Illinois (BB-7) that was renamed USS Prairie State to make the name available for BB-65 (which was never completed).  [See: https://www.gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/the-u-s-s-prairie-state-is-towed-from-her-pier-at-the-foot-news-photo/517818850 ]  It isn’t clear to me if the Prairie State served as a class room or was just a barracks ship.  It seems to have been both.
**- The lists of V-7 schools are slightly contradictory.  This is an inclusive list of what I’ve come across. 
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Ric Gillespie

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Re: Side issue: Why are all these sextants in the wrong boxes?
« Reply #5 on: January 26, 2019, 05:13:08 PM »

As an aside to another discussion, Richard Jantz asked me:
"I am still puzzled  by the improbability of the box ending in association with the bones and no one noticing them. You say that the sextant  was among those sent to the NO for general overhaul. Is it possible that the sextant ended up in a different box, making the original available to Noonan  to take with him on the Earhart flight?"

I replied:
Thank you for that question.  It started me down a path that led me to a bit of an epiphany.

First of all, yes, it’s possible.  Over 20% of the Brandis sextants we have documented are in the “wrong” box (i.e. the box for a different Brandis).  For Noonan to end up with the box for Brandis sextant 3500/1542 and the sextant itself end up assigned to USS Bushnell, the switch would have to have occurred before the box left the U.S. Navy inventory.  I know of no reason that could not have happened.

But here’s the forehead-slapper:
When the Naval Observatory overhauled a sextant they pasted a Certificate of Inspection to the inside of the box lid.  When the N.O. serviced 3500/1542 they should have pasted such a certificate to the box it was in.  The box found near the bones roughly two years later had no such certificate or the Brits would have known it was an American box instead of speculating about it being English or French.  The inside of the lid is a protected location even in the harsh Niku environment.  That’s a strong argument that the sextant that had been in the box found with the bones was not the sextant assigned to USS Bushnell. 

It’s still a bizarre coincidence that the box and its original occupant ended up on or near the same remote Pacific Island, but not nearly as improbable as a Bushnell surveyor losing a sextant box near the bones without seeing them.
« Last Edit: January 26, 2019, 05:15:39 PM by Ric Gillespie »
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Martin X. Moleski, SJ

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Re: Side issue: Why are all these sextants in the wrong boxes?
« Reply #6 on: January 27, 2019, 12:09:49 AM »

When the Naval Observatory overhauled a sextant they pasted a Certificate of Inspection to the inside of the box lid.  When the N.O. serviced 3500/1542 they should have pasted such a certificate to the box it was in.  The box found near the bones roughly two years later had no such certificate or the Brits would have known it was an American box instead of speculating about it being English or French.  The inside of the lid is a protected location even in the harsh Niku environment.  That’s a strong argument that the sextant that had been in the box found with the bones was not the sextant assigned to USS Bushnell. 
<sigh>

This happens all the time.

I don't think I have ever kept track of data and not wished halfway through that I had been paying attention to more elements than I did at the beginning.

I did not create a column to keep track of which boxes have certificates and which do not.

Many of the discrepancies between the N.O. number engraved on the sextant and other numbers on the box come from the extant certificates, but it is not easy to extract the number of boxes-lacking-certificates from the list.

I don't have time this morning and may not have any time soon, but I am moderately confident that the vast majority of the entries I have made in the table come from people posting in the Forum thread, "Can you add to the list of sextant numbers?".

Ah!  Now that I look at the fields that I created for the table, one is for "Inspection date."

|-
! Maker
! Maker No.
! Navy No.
! Inspection date
! Comments
! Bubble
! N.O. # on box

So we can be pretty confident that the presence of an "Inspection date" means that a certificate is in the box.

I'm off to see the Wizard ...

Back from the land o' data.

I count 45 entries with inspection dates.

I count 27 entries that are marked "Wrong Sextant" (WS) or "Wrong Box" (WB) and that lack an inspection date.

There are 5 entries that are marked WS or WB among the 45 that have got inspection dates.

If you go look a the list of sextants, you can change the sort order of the table by clicking on the small pair of triangles or arrowheads next to each field name.  When you click on the "Inspection date" sort marker, all of the inspection date records will float to the top.  So, too, with all the other fields. 

Some of the sorting produces nonsense lower down the table.  That's life with tables.  If you get mixed up, just refresh the page and the table will start out again in its original state.

Time for coffee and pastry.


After breakfast -- counting coup

Getting the right statistic out of the information in the table is a little tricky.

I made the table.

I'm not sure I'm counting things write.

Here is how things got complicated.

1. I wanted to keep track of pairs of numbers.

2. After keeping track of numbers for a while, it became apparent that some sextants were in the wrong box.

3. Because of the mixups, we could get one pair of numbers from the sextant box and another pair of numbers from the sextant in the box.  I put both numbers in the table. 

4. "WS" indicates that it is an entry for numbers taken from the box, even though the box contains the "wrong sextant."

5. "WB" indicates that the entry is for a pair of sextant numbers engraved on the sextant, even though those numbers disagree with numbers on the box.  This is how we know that the sextant is in the "wrong box."

6. Therefore, the same discrepancy may be recorded twice, I think: one entry for the box numbers, marked "WS," and one entry for the sextant numbers, marked "WB."

Checking the table now to see if there are the same number of WS and WB records.

...




Nope.  13 WS records and 19 WB.


Why?  Because sometimes we could tell that there was a discrepancy between the Brandis numbers on the sextant and on the box but could not derive a pair of numbers from the information we had about the box. 


Here is a weird record:

Brandis 4193
N.O. 4161
1919-04-02

Pictures show 4193 stamped on arc and inked on the box. N.O. 4161 also on arc, according to the text. Maker's number 5317 on the inspection certificate. So there is quite a discrepancy!

A theory to account for the apparent facts:

1. Brandis 5317 was put into the box for Brandis 4193 and sent to the N.O. for collimation.

2. The NO put a certificate for Brandis 5317 on the box and returned it to the sender.

3. Someone put Brandis 4193 back into its own box.

Cue sounds of wailing and gnashing of teeth.

OK.  I'm off to do some more sorting and counting.



...

I've attached an ODS spreadsheet that makes it easier to resort the data and count things in the columns.

  • 97 Naval Observatory numbers
  • 7 of these entries lack a maker's number
  • 90 pairs of numbers
  • 31 of 97 entries are marked "WB" or "WS"
  • 18 "WB"
  • 13 "WS"
  • 45 inspection dates recorded
  • 4 of the 45 are marked "WS"
  • 1 of the 45 is marked "WB"
  • 26 of the 52 pairs of numbers that lack inspection dates are marked "WB" or "WS"
Should we say that each of the WB/WS entries is a separate event?

I'm inclined to say yes.

Every sextant put in a wrong box produced a correspondingly mismatched WB/WS pair.

If we start with 100 properly matched sextants and boxes, then determine that we have seen 15 mismatches, that (to me) implies another 15 that we haven't yet seen up close and personal.

31/97 is 32%.

Even boxes with collimation certificates do not always contain the right sextant.  5 out of 45 (11%) are mismatched. 

For entries that lack collimation dates, the misplacement rate is 50%: 26/52.

It's possible that this big discrepancy is due to our inability to handle each sextant and box personally.  It may be that the sellers or owners just didn't photograph the certificate.  Because we weren't asking the question about a 1-to-1 ratio between instruments that had Naval Observatory numbers and boxes that had collimation certificates pasted inside them, we didn't keep track of whether the ABSENCE of an inspection date meant the ABSENCE of a certificate.  I think some of the certificates had numbers on them but did not have the date when the adjustment was made--but I have been wrong in the past and could be wrong now.

Some of this information might be contained in the thread about sextant numbers.  I'm not ready to go back to read those 482 posts this morning.  I have guests coming over for Mass and then for a quest to find cheap eats in the neighborhood.
LTM,

           Marty
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« Last Edit: January 27, 2019, 03:22:05 AM by Martin X. Moleski, SJ »
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Ric Gillespie

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Re: Side issue: Why are all these sextants in the wrong boxes?
« Reply #7 on: January 27, 2019, 08:43:48 AM »

Thanks Marty.  It's good to quantify what we can, but it comes down to a qualitative judgement about probability.  We know that Gallagher found the box for Brandis sextant 3500/1542 in the immediate vicinity of the bones. The question is, how did it get there?

Taking refuge in Occam:  Which of the imagined explanations requires the least multiplication of necessities?  In other words, which of the explanations relies upon the fewest improbable events?

For the box Gallagher found to have come from Bushnell requires:
• The box to have been brought shore at Gardner and lost or abandoned near the bones.
• The person or persons who lost or abandoned the box either did not notice or did not think it was worth noting the presence of the skull, partial skeleton, shoe parts, fire, dead birds and dead turtle seen later.
• The box to have been modified by someone to look like it had most recently been used merely as a receptacle.
• The N.O. certificate on the inside lid of the box went missing 18 months after it was put there by the Naval Observatory.

These are all possible but improbable events.
 
For the box to have been brought there by Amelia Earhart requires that:
•  Noonan have the box for sextant 3500/1542 but not the sextant.
•  Noonan have the box for sextant 3500/1542 with him on the world flight.
•  Earhart modify the box for use as a receptacle and bring it with her to the Seven Site.

These events are all possible and none seem to be particularly improbable. 
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Ricker H Jones

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Re: Side issue: Why are all these sextants in the wrong boxes?
« Reply #8 on: January 27, 2019, 10:42:20 AM »

What do we know of the numbering/inspection/WB/WS of the sextant Noonan loaned to his student that was returned?  Was is similar?
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Ric Gillespie

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Re: Side issue: Why are all these sextants in the wrong boxes?
« Reply #9 on: January 27, 2019, 12:39:59 PM »

What do we know of the numbering/inspection/WB/WS of the sextant Noonan loaned to his student that was returned?  Was is similar?

Great question.  Here's a photo of the box for a Ludolph sextant we found on eBay and asked the owner to send us pictures.  See any certificate?
« Last Edit: January 28, 2019, 07:06:47 AM by Ric Gillespie »
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Martin X. Moleski, SJ

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Re: Side issue: Why are all these sextants in the wrong boxes?
« Reply #10 on: January 28, 2019, 02:05:46 AM »

Here's a photo of that box (Pensacola loaned it to us).  See any certificate?


No.


But the green felt (?) is unusual.


It seems to me that most of the pictures of boxes I've looked at since 2010 did not have any felt in them at all.


Could the owner of that instrument have removed an NO collimation certificate in order to install the felt lining?  Or put the lining right over the certificate?


OH--and the fact that the two numbers for that box are scrawled on the bottom in pencil suggests to me that it might be a WB/WS example.  Many of the boxes in our list have got a Brandis serial number on the box.  That is one way of determining a mismatch between the box and the sextant.


It gets complicated quick ...
LTM,

           Marty
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Ric Gillespie

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Re: Side issue: Why are all these sextants in the wrong boxes?
« Reply #11 on: January 28, 2019, 07:04:19 AM »

Could the owner of that instrument have removed an NO collimation certificate in order to install the felt lining?  Or put the lining right over the certificate?

Yes, that's possible but the photo I posted does NOT show the box for the Ludolph sextant once owned by Noonan and now at the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola.  My bad.  That box is for another Ludolph sextant we found on eBay and asked the owner to send us pictures. I'll correct that post.

The interior of the Pensacola box is shown in a 1999 TIGHAR Tracks article about the box. The interior has no felt lining and there is no certificate.
« Last Edit: January 28, 2019, 07:07:11 AM by Ric Gillespie »
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