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This incredible ring turns into an ancient astronomy tool

Published Jan 27th, 2021 3:14PM EST
astronomy ring
Image: NASA, ESA, and G. Piotto (Università degli Studi di Padova); Processing: Gladys Kober (NASA/Catholic University of America)

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  • Astronomers in the 16th through 19th centuries used to wear rings that unfolded to become instruments used for calculations.
  • The rings, which looked like normal finger rings, were actually armillary spheres, which astronomers used in their work.
  • Some of the rings, now relics, are showcased by the British Museum. 

Astronomers aren’t normally associated with jewelry, but scientists studying the heavens from the 16th century through to the 19th century apparently had more than a passing interest in some very unique accouterments. As My Modern Met explains, ancient astronomers had a habit of wearing an instrument as an accessory in their everyday wardrobe.

To anyone glancing at one, it would look like a normal finger ring, but when removed and unfolded it became a tool for helping to better grasp Earth’s place in space. More specifically, the rings turned into what are known as armillary spheres, which can be used for a variety of purposes, including calculations.

But not everyone that wore the rings work them specifically for their usefulness as an instrument for astronomy. Some wore these types of rings to show off their level of education, as only someone who was well-educated would wear such a fancy tool on their finger. They were also sometimes worn for religious reasons, according to jewelers that spoke with My Modern Met.

The British Museum via My Modern Met

The site explains:

The British Museum has a collection of several armillary sphere rings that are incredibly well-crafted and detailed. When closed, they look like any other ring, but as the different bands are fanned out, the rings take on a unique quality. Built with anywhere between two to eight moving bands, these intricate pieces of jewelry would need to have been executed by skilled craftsmen.

I think what’s most interesting (to me anyway) about these rings is the fact that they were, for some, important tools to grasp advanced concepts of astronomy, but for others, they were almost a way to brag about their own accomplishments. I mean, being an astronomer several centuries ago surely took plenty of work and a whole lot of learning (as is still true today), but scientists aren’t typically known for being braggadocious.

Imagine if modern doctors walked around in public with a stethoscope around their necks, just to show people that they work in the medical field and are therefore very important. That’s kind of what was going on with these rings, only in a somewhat more subtle manner.

You wouldn’t know what the ring was until it was taken off and unfolded, so I suppose it wasn’t an overly obnoxious accessory, but I can just imagine some prideful astronomer walking around in the 16th century, unfolding his ring every time he sat down to have a bite to eat. I bet it happened.