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Author Topic: Side issue: Why are all these sextants in the wrong boxes?  (Read 840 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.

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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.
LTM,

           Marty
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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.

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#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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