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Silver capstan-style case with magnifier in tortoiseshell mount, alongside a detailed image of the inscription on top of the silver case.
Silver-capstan style case (left), Captain Cook's magnifier (centre) and the detailed inscription on the top of the case (right). National Museum of Australia
Silver case and small magnifying glass, mounted in tortoiseshell. - click to view larger image
The silver-capstan style case housing a small magnifying glass. National Museum of Australia

Artefacts illustrating explorer Captain James Cook's great skill as a navigator are part of the National Museum's collection.

The magnifier has been traced back to an astronomer who sailed with Cook and a renowned British naval scholar.

The magnifier and a plane table frame would have been used in the making of accurate maps, essential for safe navigation.

The small magnifying glass is held in a tortoiseshell mount and housed in a silver capstan-style case.

Astronomer William Bayly sailed on Cook's second and third Pacific voyages and later published his observations.

It is thought the magnifier may have been bought by Bayly when Cook's effects were sold 'before the mast', following the explorer's death in Hawaii.

The magnifier passed from Bayly to Beaufoy and subsequently descended in the family until it was offered for auction in London and bought by the National Museum.

The case, which is almost seven centimetres high, dates from 1844. It bears the inscription:

This magnifier was given by Captain James Cook, the celebrated navigator to Mr Willm. Bayley the astronomer to the expedition during Cook's 3rd voyage and was presented by Mr Bayly to his Pupil, friend & Executor Mark Beaufoy Esqr. F.R.S.

Accurate surveying

The 18th-century surveyor's plane table frame was used to assist in accurate coastal mapping. The frame held paper firmly in place on the top of the plane table, a level surface used for surveying with a compass and a sighting device called an alidade.

Cook adapted this land surveying method to rapidly chart Pacific coastlines as a running survey from the deck of a moving ship. His charts of the coasts of New Zealand and Australia were drawn up using the plane table method, which required Cook to sail close to shore.

The boxwood frame has brass hinges and measures 34 by 41 centimetres.

A grandson of British naval scholar Dr William Burney reported his grandfather received the frame from Cook.

The frame was then acquired by Reverend Frederick Johnson from Dr Burney's grandson. It was later bought from a descendant of Reverend Johnson by a private collector; then at auction by the National Museum.

These navigational aids complement the Museum's Cook collection which includes:

  • a hand-painted tea cup and saucer which belonged to the explorer
  • a cannon and anchor from the Endeavour.
Folded wooden frame with brass hinges.
Cook's plane table frame. National Museum of Australia

In our collection

Plane table frame used by Captain James CookA surveyor's collapsible, amber-coloured, boxwood plane table frame [measuring or scientific instrument]. It has brass hinges at the four mitred corners and in the centre of the two facing sides, which allow it to fold down so that all its parts are aligned. One face of the frame is inscribed with graduated degree scales, 0 - 36...
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