Britain Medieval Tool
AP
In this undated photo provided by the British Museum, a brass device, called an astrolabe quadrant, is seen. The British Museum said Thursday, July 31, 2008, it has bought a rare medieval astronomy tool after a last-minute influx of cash helped the institution buy it and prevent it from leaving the country. (AP Photo/British Museum, PA)
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updated 7/31/2008 3:58:00 PM ET 2008-07-31T19:58:00

A rare astronomy tool that helped medieval scientists tell time will remain in Britain after the British Museum scrambled to come up with the money to buy it.

The brass device, called an astrolabe quadrant, had been sold at auction last year, and the museum was outbid. But money from the National Heritage Memorial fund, The Art Fund and the British Museum Friends helped the museum purchase it recently for $700,000.

"The quadrant will be a very important addition to our medieval collection as an object which can explain the sophistication of science in the Middle Ages and the transfer of knowledge between Muslim, Jewish and Christian communities," deputy director of the British Museum Andrew Burnett said in a statement Thursday.

The 14th-century device, which is shape of a quadrant, or quarter of a circle, was designed to be portable and has a radius of 3 inches (77 millimeters). The instrument was used to calculate the height of the sun. With that information, a scientist could determine the time, date and other calculations.

The eagle engraved on this astrolabe indicates it was to be used with the sun rather than with the stars, because the eagle was believed to be the only animal able to look directly into the sun, said Silke Ackermann, the British Museum's curator of European and Islamic scientific instruments.

The invention of the astrolabe is credited to Islamic scientists in the 9th century who learned about the concept from studying ancient Greek science. The devices were later adopted by Europeans in the 10th century and were used through the 1600s.

Eight astrolabe quadrants are known to exist from the Middle Ages, but the British Museum's instrument is the only one created for use in England, the museum said. It was found in an archaeological dig in 2005 in Canterbury, in southeast England.

The device will be on display at the British Museum starting in early August.

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