Navigating the Seas

What is a sextant?

It looks like something from a Jules Verne novel – but this tool is pure nonfiction.

Long before GPS and other electronic tools took over in navigation, ship captains had to measure their location differently.

A sunset on a beach in Florida. Photo by Christopher Hollis, CC 3.0

A sunset on a beach in Florida. Photo by Christopher Hollis, CC 3.0

That’s where the sextant comes in. It looks complicated to modern eyes, but navigators were experts at each technical part. How does a sextant work? At the most basic explanation, a sextant measures the altitude of the sun or other celestial bodies above the horizon. It uses two mirrors; you look through one mirror at the horizon, while the other mirror moves on an arm to where the sun reflects off of it. Then the angle is read on the scale. This information is used to find the boat’s position on a chart.

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The sextant is still sometimes considered an excellent backup on a ship for navigation, since unlike most modern navigational tools, it doesn’t run on electricity. It’s also a very accurate tool.

The sextant in the pictures is from 1837. It’s in remarkable condition and is even in its original box.

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The label (a very pretty label, if only they made them like that today!) says: “the Sextant No. 19595 named Henry Hughes & Son LTD. of 6” radius & reading to 10” has been examined & found satisfactory.”

This site has a fun project to build your own sextant!

The Incredible Story of Nellie Bly, Pt. II

 

To make a name for herself as a journalist, Nellie Bly never passed down an opportunity for a story.

(Check out Part I of Nellie’s story here!)

Bly was not done making news. In 1888, she persuaded her editor at New York World that she would take a trip around the world, a la Around the World in Eighty Days. A year later she boarded a steamer called the Augusta Victoria to begin her record-breaking journey.

The fictional Phileas Fogg as written by Jules Verne traversed the world in 80 days. Even though his record only existed in stories, it stood as a record worth beating.

But Bly had competition. The newspaper Cosmopolitan sponsored its own reporter, Elizabeth Bisland, to race around the world in the opposite direction. The World sponsored a “Nellie Bly Guessing Match” for the exact second that Bly would return from her trip.

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Bly used a number of transportation methods in her travels, including steamships, railroads, horses, rickshaws and more. In China Bly visited a leper colony and also bought a monkey in Singapore. She met Jules Verne himself in France. As she traveled she sent short reports of her positions.

Bly traveled mostly unchaperoned, a bold move for a woman of her time.

Bly had to take a slower ship than intended on the last leg of the trip, but the owner of the World hired a private train to rush her back.

After a journey of 72 days, six hours, eleven minutes and fourteen seconds, Bly returned to New York. She set the world record for the fastest trip around the world.

Bisland, the reporter sent to race her, arrived in New York four and a half days later; she had missed a connection and had to finish her journey on a slower ship.

A few months later, a man named George Francis Train beat her record with a trip in 67 days.

Nellie Bly had established herself as an all-star reporter, and her name was later recognized in various pop culture and other references. The New York Press Club, for instance, gives an annual “Nellie Bly Club Reporter” journalism award to the best new journalists in the field.

When Bly passed away in 1922, she had an unmarked grave in New York’s Woodlawn Cemetery until the New York Press Club funded a gravestone with her name in 1978.