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New Design for an Armillary Sphere--One of Zhenjiang’s Masterpieces

Release Time:2017-06-29 Source:Zhenjiang Library Author:jsb Views:682

1New Design for an Armillary Sphere was composed by Su Song of the Northern Song dynasty. Su Song (1020-1101), literary name Zirong, is an astronomer and pharmacologist of the Northern Song dynasty. He was a native of Nan’an, Quanzhou, Fujian province, but later migrated to Jingkou (now Zhenjiang). In the 2nd Qingli year of Emperor Renzong (1042) he was entitled Jinshi in the Imperial Examinations. Then he was successively appointed proofreader in the academy or institute, proofreader in the Jixian Academy, and during the reign of Emperor Zhezong appointed minister in the Ministry of Punishments, minister in the Ministry of Official Personnel Department, and right supervisor & assistant minister in the Secretariat-Chancellery. Well-read and good at writing, Su Song made great achievements in machinery, astronomy, medicine, geography, etc. His other works include Commentaries on the Illustrations, Anthology of Su Song the Duke of Wei, etc.


Portrait of Su Song


New Design for an Armillary Sphere was completed during the 1st and 3rd year of Emperor Shaosheng of the Song dynasty (1094-1096), which records the instruction for the design of “water-powered armillary sphere”. The frontpiece called “Evolution of the Armillary Sphere” introduces the history of contriving and making the armillary sphere. Volume 1 of the book is devoted to the armillary sphere, including the whole drawing of the instrument and individual designs of all important parts. Volume 2 is devoted to the celestial sphere, attached with several star charts. Volume 3 is devoted to the mechanism of the celestial sphere, powered by a water-wheel-equipped special escapement mechanism that constantly drives the celestial sphere and its wheels. The detailed engineering drawings of all kinds in the book add up to over 60, and the pictures of mechanical components total 150, which demonstrate the function and composition of the water-powered armillary with both pictures and words.

“Su Song is one of the greatest naturalists and scientists in the Ancient and Middle Ages of China” (Dr. Joseph Needham). The water-powered armillary sphere is an excellent astronomical timekeeping instrument. New Design for an Armillary Sphere is ranked among the greatest works on astronomical instruments in China, which exhibits the processing and manufacturing level of the Song dynasty. The structure charts in this book, adopting the techniques of perspective and schematic drawing, are the earliest mechanical drawings of China that are now extant. The star charts in Volume 2 record the achievements in celestial observation during the reign of Emperor Yuanfeng of the Northern Song dynasty. They are now the earliest and the most complete star charts of China that are now extant.

My grandfather (i.e. Su Song) was in the academy for 9 years, but due to poverty he could not afford to hire a scribe to transcribe the books in the Imperial Confidential Depository. So he memorized 2,000 words each day, and wrote down as soon as he arrived home. We boast a collection of several ten thousand volumes of books, most of which are copies of those in the Imperial Confidential Depository.

——Teachings of Prime Minister Su Song, Duke of Wei by Su Xiangxian

New Design for an Armillary Sphere published in 1922, a photocopy of Shanghai Bogu Studio

3A Rehabilitated Building of the Water-powered Armillary Sphere in the proportion of 1:1 in Tong’an, Fujian province