Tools for sale 

Compasses, Calipers and Dividers

Ted Crom

Among the first tools of man were the hammer, knife-scraper and almost certainly some form of compass. A few examples of compasses from Roman times have been excavated. Literature from the earliest times mentions or illustrates compasses. Nicolas Bion writing in 1709 shows many fine compasses as do the encyclopaedia of the 18th century. John Wyke of England offered compasses, calipers, and dividers of many sizes and styles in his circa 1760 tool trade catalogue. Thereafter all tool trade catalogues of the eighteenth and later centuries offered a wide range of such tools. Reprints of many pages of these early books and catalogues illustrating compasses, dividers, and a vast array of other tools are included in the book “Horological Shop Tools” by this author.

Compasses, calipers and dividers are often classified by type, such as spring, beam, drafting, bow, millwrights, wheelwrights, shipwrights, wing, rack wing, etc. The historic widely known Masonic Emblem features a compass and square. Many other beautifully engraved scientific emblems feature dividers, calipers and compasses. These tools during the sixteenth through to the nineteenth century were frequently elaborately decorated, sometimes with gilded portions, often with representation of real or fantasy animals, humans, hands or feet. They were sometimes gifts of state among royalty. Lucky is the owner of such a tool. But buyer beware! Years ago I sat one evening in Amsterdam, Holland chatting with a tool dealer while he skillfully filed typical 18th century decoration into plain 19th century compasses.

The rare rack wing compass and caliper are tools with locking screw, and a second thumb screw inserted through the body of the adjustable leg of the tool Inside the leg, as part of the thumb screw, is a four leaf pinion. The pinion engages a rack of teeth on the outer perimeter of the wing. Apparently the design was to enable more accurate setting of the opening of the caliper or compass. Of the twenty or so such rack wing tools seen by the author some half had broken pinion thumb screws. Obviously it was a poor design yet included in tool catalogues for a hundred years. There is an article in the EAIA December 1994 “Chronicle” about rack wing compasses and calipers.

In sixteenth century Nurnhurg, to become a master “circle maker” or iron tool maker the requirement was to make four beautiful tools; a massive screw compass with right and left hand thread, a small ornate hand vice with separate hexagonal wrench, and two different delightful multiple purpose pincer-hammer-claw tools, all in a period of fourteen days. In the 16-17th century cemeteries of Nurnberg, Germany these, and many other tools, are depicted on bronze epitaphs atop toolmaker tombs. A few wonderful examples of the “master” tools are displayed in the very modern Nurnberg museum. E.B. Frank in “Old French Ironwork 1950”, Plate 3 illustrates such a compass. Such tools are so rare that one may never appear within the Toolshop catalogue’s pages.

Hanging on the wall in the winery at Heidelberg, Germany is a wooden compass with legs some four or more meters long. The legend states the huge compass was used to lay out the massive wine cask tourists climb a flight of stairs to view from its top. How such an amazingly large compass could be manipulated to swing a circle is beyond understanding. Why not a beam compass?

Remember the golden rule when collecting – the pain of high price is slowly replaced with the pleasure of ownership.

Appeared 1998 – Toolshop Auctions Catalogue

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