Sextant box found on Nikumaroro

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Pensacola sextant, top view (3547/173).
Loaned by Fred Noonan to a student.

When Gallagher did a thorough search of the area near where the skull was found, he discovered an empty sextant box with two numbers on it--3500 and 1542. The British saw no significance in the numbers; in 2008, TIGHAR found an intriguing pattern of dual numbers (maker's number and U.S. Naval Observatory numbers assigned when the instruments were inspected there).

In 2018, an independent researcher determined that the sextant had been assigned to the U.S.S. Bushnell, which surveyed Gardner Island in 1939.

N.O. 1542 assigned to the U.S.S. Bushnell

From Ric Gillespie in the Amelia Earhart Search Forum, 28 October 2018:

Last night, Andrew McKenna called my attention to a report recently posted by a TIGHAR critic that provides what appears to be solid documentation that the sextant box found with the castaway bones in 1940 came from the November, 1939 USS Bushnell survey. The Naval Observatory Number on the box Gallagher found was 1542. That N.O. number is recorded as being among Bushnell sextants sent to the Naval Observatory for "general overhaul" in late 1938. The Bushnell survey of Gardner Island was in November 1939.

We’ve lost what always appeared to be a strong link between the castaway and Earhart, but this is nonetheless a positive development. Documented fact is always welcome, and this does not effect the other evidence that says the castaway was Earhart.

The owner of the blog The Ghost of Gardner Island doesn’t give his name but apparently at one time he was on the TIGHAR Forum.

I’ve sent him this email:

I just read your “Origin of the Nikumaroro Sextant Box.” It’s a terrific piece of research and I agree you with you that the box found near the castaway’s remains was from USS Bushnell.

As you say, when you first proposed that the box came from USS Bushnell I thought the suggestion was “thoroughly bizarre.” Whether bizarre or not, you have shown that your hypothesis is correct. I should not have been so dismissive. I’m sorry. Please accept my apology.

I could not imagine how a valuable piece of equipment could have been left behind by the Bushnell surveyors and then end up in the immediate vicinity of the partial skeleton looking like it had been "used latterly merely as a receptacle” (August 8, 1941 note to file by High Commissioner Sir Harry Luke). without the surveyors also noticing the bones. That still seems “bizarre”, but it happened. Your suggestion that "a Bushnell surveyor happened to lose it in the vicinity of the remains of the castaway’s final campsite” doesn't explain its described appearance, which I take to mean that the internal structures in the box had been removed to make more useful as simply a way to carry stuff. Why would a surveyor do that?

Here’s one possible sequence of events:

• November 1939 - The box, probably containing the sextant, gets left behind when USS Bushnell departs.
• At that time there were a couple dozen Gilbertese laborers living on the island, clearing land and planting coconuts. (Not speculation) One of them finds the box. The sextant is of no use but the nice wooden box with a handle is good for carrying stuff if you tear out the internal fixtures. (Speculation)
• April 1940 - A work party goes to the southeast end of the island to cut hardwood (Kanawa) for the construction of furniture for the Government Rest House then under construction. (Not speculation) One of the laborers has the box with him.(Speculation)
• While cutting wood, the work party comes upon a human skull and buries it. (Not speculation) Someone, probably the Island Magistrate Buakee Koata, also finds and collects a Benedictine bottle. (Not Speculation)
• When the work party leaves the site, the box is left behind near where the skull is buried. (Speculation)
• September 1940 - Gallagher arrives on the island, hears about the skull, and goes to investigate. Gallagher finds the partial skeleton, part of a woman’s shoe, part of a man’s shoe, some small corks with dress chains, and the box. He naturally, but incorrectly, associates the box with the castaway. (Not speculation)

Of course, none of this offers an alternative explanation for the castaway, the shoe parts, the corks, and all of the signs of a castaway campsite.

Loose ends:

• Why would the laborer leave his box behind?
• Gallagher associates the box with the castaway. Nobody tells him “that's my box.
• Gallagher reported that “part of the lens of an inverting eyepiece” was also found but was “thrown away by finder.” Apparently Gallagher never saw it and seems to be basing his identification of the object on a description. Who is describing it? The finder? When was it found and thrown away? I can’t make it make sense.

Notes from the bones file

Telegram No. 71 from Gallagher to Jack Barley, Resident Commissioner, Ocean Island, Sept. 23, 1940
Sextant box has two numbers on it 3500 (stencilled) and 1542--sextant being old fashioned and probably painted over with black enamel.[1]
Typed note in file 4439-40 (23) from Vaskess to Sir Harry, April 11, 1941
The sextant box with its contents is now with me. Perhaps Captain Nasmyth might be willing to examine this with a view to ascertaining the origin?
Letter – circled 14. Vaskess to Commander G.B. Nasmyth, F.R. Met. Soc., Suva. June 6, 1941.
Dear Commander Nasmyth,
With reference to our telephone conversation relative to the identification of a sextant and box which I mentioned as having been found and which you were so good as to say you would examine, I regret to state that on further examination it was discovered that no sextant had actually been found but only a box thought to have contained a sextant.
I am forwarding the box to you with this letter and His Excellency would be grateful if you would examine it with a view to determining its use and origin if possible.
Secretary to the High Commission
Typed note to file 4439-40 in red ink (39). Sir Harry to Vaskess. August 8, 1941.
Sec., H.C.,
I return the sextant box which I had retrieved from Captain Nasmyth in order to show it to Mr. Gatty who has expert knowledge of such matters. Mr. Gatty thinks that the box is an English one of some age and judges that it was used latterly merely as a receptacle. He does not consider that it could in any circumstance have been a sextant box used in modern trans-Pacific aviation. 2. What was Captain Nasmyth's opinion of it?
Note to file 4439-40 (40). MacDonald to Vaskess (passed along to Sir Harry)
The Secretary
Mnt (39), para. 2, I have spoken to Captain Nasmyth who replied as follows:- "As the sextant box has no distinguishing marks, & since it was discovered that no sextant had been found, all I have been able to find out is that the make of the box – that is – the dovetailing of the corners – makes it appear to be of French origin."

Dovetailed sextant boxes

"Dovetail joints for the corners had by the 1920s given way to comb (finger) joints, but as some later American aircraft cases used corner rebates, which are much easier to make without special machinery."[1]

Tofiga's recollection

Tofiga said he had seen a sextant box on Vaskess' credenza. Tofiga was not taken into the confidences of the WPHC officers who examined the materials sent to Fiji from Gardner Island, but it seems very likely that the box he saw was the one Gallagher sent to Suva.

What might 3500 and 1542 mean?

Brandis #3987; N.O. #1584

The sextant box found on Nikumaroro and shipped to Fiji in 1941 had two numbers on it: 3500 and 1542.[2] TIGHAR has recently found a plausible explanation for those two numbers. The first is likely to be the maker's number; the second a number inscribed on the instrument when it was inspected at the U.S. Naval Observatory.

Fred Noonan loaned a naval sextant to a student of his prior to the fatal flight. That sextant box is extant and also has two numbers handwritten on the bottom of it: 3547 and 173. But the sextant inside the box is a Ludolph with a different serial number.

As indicated in the first section of this article, we now know that 1542 is unquestionably a Naval Observatory number and that the sextant with that number was assigned to the U.S.S. Bushnell, which surveyed Gardner Island in 1939.

The Pensacola Sextant Box (3547 and 173)

The National Museum of Naval Aviation has a sextant box with "dovetailed corners, the number 116 handwritten on the front, and the numbers 3547 and 173 handwritten on the bottom." The box contains "a sextant manufactured by W. Ludolph of Bremerhaven, Germany, in 1919, with the serial number XIX 1090, painted black."[2] The box was donated by W. A. Cluthe, a retired Pan Am captain, who said that he had borrowed the Ludolph sextant from Fred Noonan.[3] The box is listed in the table below as Brandis (theoretical) because the box contains modifications that may have been made to accommodate a Brandis bubble sextant.

Sextant Box Numbers: Suggestive Patterns

This chart is organized in the order of the Navy number given to the instruments by the Naval Observatory when they were sent there for calibration. Two entries are theoretical; the rest are actual pairs of numbers obtained from various sources. Two of the boxes in TIGHAR's possession have Naval Observatory numbers stamped on the box along with Brandis maker's numbers stenciled on the box.

In the engraving on the sextants, there is a symbol for the Naval Observatory between "U.S. Navy" and the number issued by the Naval Observatory. The symbol is an "N" superimposed on a square "O". The symbol is relatively clear in this photograph.

All the nautical instrument repair and calibration work was shipped off to Norfolk in the early 1950s.
"Important though this work was, the Observatory was open to the criticism, especially from astronomers, that navigational instruments should be no part of the work of an astronomical observatory. This was undoubtedly part of the reason that the chronometer function was transferred in 1951 to the Norfolk Navy Yard, leaving only a small group of instrument makers who repaired and constructed the Observatory’s telescopes and other instrumentation, rather than navigational instruments."[4]

Any sextant marked "FE Brandis" is definitely a pre-1925 or so product.

Most of this information has come from the thread in the Forum entitled "Can you add to the list of sextant numbers?"

Click on the sort symbol Sort none.gif next to or under the headings to sort on the values in that column.
WB = Sextant is in the wrong box. WS = Wrong sextant is in this box.
Maker Maker No. Navy No. Inspection date Comments Bubble N.O. # on box WB/WS
W&S (stamped into box and on plate) Warner & Swasey 69 34 Flying Fish Trading Co.  ?
Brandis (theoretical) 3547 173 Pensacola  ?

Keuffel & Esser 14279 330 1931-06-11 Live Auctioneers. Class: H.G. Stylized N+O. Unusual inlaid U.S. Navy shield with N+O and N+O 330 on it. Unusual engraved brass plaque on top.

Brandis 2763 348 Dovetail joints on box. Yes, on brass plaque.
Brandis 2734 362 1943-04-18 ebay #350401896246; re-inspected 1965-11-12 no yes (die-punched)
Keuffel & Esser 18446 405 Smithsonian; K&E date: 1908 yes
Keuffel & Esser 4940 415 1936-01-29 Flying Fish Trading; K&E date: 1901; in W&S box no

Keuffel & Esser 470 0107 1942-12-31 Manufactured 1887/1888? Class: survey. Lacks stylized N+O. Engraved in two places on instrument. Punch-stamped twice on hingeline of box. Class: Survey.

Keuffel & Esser 5418 575 1918-04-16 Mystic Seaport; K&E date: 1901 no
Keuffel & Esser 31475[5] 616 1941-09-29[6] Private collection. Sextant described by owner in e-mail to TIGHAR (2013-06-04). no Yes, on inlaid shield, outside lid of the box.
Keuffel & Esser 33839 664 K&E date: 1916
Brandis 3249 836 ebay no "3249" in pencil inside box lid and in ink on box top
Brandis 3227 845 Mariner's Museum no
Brandis 3239 850 Dominic Winter Book Auctions; "circa 1918."
"Brandis & Sons Mfg. Co. Brooklyn."
Brandis 3268 882 (?) ebay; 882 is stenciled on front of the box. no 882 stenciled on front; box only; contains 3657 WS

Brandis 3667 889 ebay. no yes. Box only; contains 3703/936. WS

Brandis 3703 936 ebay. no Yes, but box is for 3667/889. WB

Brandis 3738 945 ebay; In box for 3268. no WB
Buff & Buff 11778 1065 1918-05-12 eBay no
Brandis 5851 1110 Purchased on ebay by Lee Paynter, a TIGHAR member. no no, but Maker number is stenciled on edge

Brandis 5756 1114 1937-08-02 ebay; box containing Brandis 5981 / N.O. 1142 with certificate of inspection for 5756/1114 WS

Brandis 5727 1127 1921-08-20 email to TIGHAR headquarters

Brandis 5981 1142 in box for Brandis 5756 / N.O. 1114 WB
Buff & Buff 11949 1144 eBay no
Brandis 1146 1921-08-27 eBay no
Buff & Buff 13069 1248 ebay. n/a

Buff & Buff 13135 1365 La Timonerie Antiquities. Manufactured 1908? Maker number and NO number on instrument.

Brandis 3339 1415 1942-12-26 Antique Helper No Yes
Brandis 3331 1421 Land and Sea; in box for 4551 No No. WB
Brandis 3360 1446 in box for 4131, which is stamped in ink above right hinge. Also stamped in ink:
Brandis Lamp; Sons Inc
764-753 Lexington Avenue
Brooklyn, New York
No No WB
Brandis 3444 1461 eBay. no No, box is for a Buff & Buff

Brandis 4129 1530 eBay. In box for 4483 WB

Brandis 3500 1542 Assigned to the U.S.S. Bushnell, which surveyed Gardner Island in 1939. The empty sextant box was found on the island and sent to the Western Pacific High Commission in Suva, Fiji, in 1941.  ? Yes. We got the two numbers from the Suva "Bones File." That's what started this whole line of research into N.O. numbers!
Keuffel & Esser 37548 1555 1919-10-24 Mariner's Museum; K&E date 1918 no
Brandis 3483 1567 1932-01-27 ebay; box only. no WS
Brandis 3987 1584 1938-11-30 TIGHAR no yes
Brandis (sextant only) 3511 1585 TIGHAR (sextant only) no
Keuffel & Esser 37508 1595 ebay; USN number 161-USN-252194 n/a
Brandis 3527 1599 1933-05-04 TIGHAR; large box; box only yes
Brandis 4521 1648 no no; 58281 in pencil inside the lid on what looks like a repair or addition
Brandis 4551 1762 ebay; box only; contains B. 3331 / N.O. 1421 no yes WS
Brandis 4297 1880 1939-09-18 TIGHAR - McKenna no yes
Brandis 4522 1868 1918-11-07 Brandis & Sons; survey; "H.K."; Capt. J. H. Klein no
Brandis 4672 1889 eBay (reported 11/17/2011 on AE Forum by D.P.Cotts) no In Box for Brandis 4667. WB
Brandis 4345 1914 ebay. metal tag: 61071 000065. Inside edge: (pencil) serial 1914; Brandis stamp: 4001. no no WB
Brandis 4319 1960 ebay no (in box for 3483/1567) WB
Brandis 4707 1969 ebay yes
Brandis (sextant only) 4279 2531 1941-07-23 Flying Fish Trading Co.; box is for B. 4234 no

Brandis 4244 2561 Moinat SA, "Sextant 'US NAVY N° 2551 par Brandis & Son." I read "2561" in the photo. "4244" (?) is in ink on the hingeline. Not visible on photos of instrument.

Brandis (sextant only) 4834 2564 1941-06-28 ebay no yes

Brandis 4836 2607 ebay no no. In box for 4798. WB

Brandis 4919 2659 1919-02-18 ebay. NO 2659 etched on arc. Brandis 4919 on the arc and the inspection certificate. no no. Serial number is stenciled on the box.

Brandis (sextant only) 4934 2687 ebay, sold 12/30/2014 $132.50 no yes
Brandis 5015 2693 1945-06-05 LiveAuctioneers.These two numbers are on the collimation certificate. They have not been cross-checked with the instrument in the box.  ??
Brandis 5071 2696 1939-09-18 U. of Illinois Observatory no
Brandis 4994 2741 1942-05-25 eBay (reported 12/05/2011 on AE Forum by D.P.Cotts) no
Brandis 4440 2743 eBay; box number 4902 no no WB
Brandis 4946 2785 TIGHAR no
Brandis 2539 2827 eBay; "161 - USN - 252222" by hand on arc; "U.S. Navy" stamped on arc only on box; Brandis 2539 on arc
Brandis 4182 2868 eBay; (no box) N/A
Brandis 4180 2895 Bill Morris no
Brandis 5214 2900 ebay no
Brandis 5310[7] 2919 1946-03-07 eBay; Survey; box only
Brandis 5620 2939 1919 Smithsonian no
Brandis 5289 2959 ebay no
Brandis 5292 2975 1919-03-26 Russ Dickey yes
Brandis 5296 2977 1919-03-16 Smithsonian yes
Keuffel & Esser 36961 3227 1937 K&E date: 1918

Keuffel & Esser 37305 3277 1940-09-20 Cloudy Nights. "1919 K&E Sextant." Class: Survey.

David White Co. 3954-41 1948-12-11 Craigslist NO 3954 on plaque. Other numbers and signs written on the top of the box: "X9773-" and "R1" on top.
Brandis 5156 4017 eBay; in box for UNSO 4717/1982 no WB
Brandis 5109 4067 eBay no
Brandis 5375 4125 ebay no
Brandis 4193 4161 1919-04-02 ebay. Problematic. no Pictures show 4193 stamped on arc and inked on the box. N.O. 4161 also on arc, according to the text. Maker's number 5317 on the inspection certificate. So there is quite a discrepancy! WB

Brandis 4765 4267 1938-11-15 ebay no Appears to be 4765.
Brandis 4750 4296 In box for NO 4572 4572 WB
Brandis 4762 4334 eBay  ? plate on box says 1844 WB
Brandis 5524 4374 ebay. In box for Brandis 4065 (inked on hingeline). no no WB
Brandis 4144 4449 Bill Morris no
Brandis 5577 4485 1941-03-14 ebay. A note made in pen on the margin of the N.O. certificate reads, "Use cigarette ashes to wash." no Not stenciled or stamped. Gillespie: "Interesting that the box has no stenciled serial number or stamped-in N.O. number. Apparently, at some point, they stopped doing that." The collimation (calibration) certificate glued into the box matches the serial number and N.O. number on the sextant.
Brandis 3596 4510 ebay; 7.5" radius no no box
Brandis 3920 4516 no seller says "yes"
Brandis 3893 4569 1941-03-14 ebay; sold in 1946 as war surplus no
Brandis 4029 4572 Numbers from box; contains NO 4296. 4572 WS
Brandis 3826 4603 eBay no Brass plaque on box: "248 US Navy 101009"
Brandis 3946 Box only. Holds Brandis 5670. No. WS
Brandis 4097 4657 1937-09-30 eBay; class: Survey no in pencil inside
Brandis 4313 4665 Bruce Thomas no No box. In display case from USS Hancock.
Brandis 5670 4705 Smithsonian; offered for sale on ebay in 2017. Identified as Brandis 5670. Curator confirms number is 5670. no No. The box is for Brandis 3946. WB
Brandis 1982 4717 ebay; holds USNO 4017/5156 yes; box only WS
Brandis 3336 4773 eBay (no box) no
Brandis 3320 4799 eBay (reported 11/22/2011 on AE Forum by D.P.Cotts) no no
Brandis 3985 4826 eBay (reported on AE Forum 6/30/2012 by Walter Runck) no No
Brandis 3832 4831 1937-09-30 no No?
Brandis 3898 4842 1941-04-18 Last digit in inspection year uncertain: 194? ebay no 3898 on box; no NO No. seen in ebay pictures.
Brandis 3806 4879 purchased by TIGHAR member Jim Linder no
Brandis 5628 4954 1932-12-23 eBay (McKenna). "DD 359" (US Destroyer USS Winslow?) written in pencil twice in the box.[8] no No numbers on the box (neither Brandis nor N.O.).
Mergenthaler 5083-44 1945-03-27 Only the box; ebay. n/a
Mergenthaler 5223-44 1945-01-04 MK. I. Mod. 0; ebay no Note on box for 5878-44
David White (1943) 11949 5508 eBay no
David White (1941) 5273 USNO Historical Committee Inv
Mergenthaler 5878-44 MK. I. Mod. 0; ebay no In box for 5223-44
David White (1941) 9746 eBay (reported 10/15/2011 on AE Forum by A.McKenna) was used on USS Hector no 13692 stamped on brass plate affixed above lid latches
David White (1943) 17649 17649-43 1946-07-19 eBay no
No Navy numbers or not known
Brandis 1844  ? eBay; plate on box containing 4762 WS
Brandis 2539 166 - USN 25222 (?) ebay; "U.S. Navy on one end of arc; "161 - USN - 25222" hand-engraved; in box with 2827 die-punched on it 2827 die-punched (not inked) on wood. Because of the two different kinds of numbers, I have entered this sextant number twice in the table. Here as 166 - USN 25222; elsewhere as Navy No. 2827.

Brandis 2679 Brandis sticker identifies this as an octant manufactured on 1/19/1911. There does not seem to be any Navy number or collimation certificate. The box has "dovetail joints." ebay.
Brandis 3193 none Smithsonian yes
Brandis 3657 883 (?) box holding sextant 3692; ebay no; 883 stenciled on box WS
Brandis 2864 none "F. E. Brandis, Sons & Co." and serial number in center of the arc. none
Brandis 3692 none ebay no; in box for 3657 WB
Brandis 3702 none e-bay. Large "916" stenciled in gold on box. no "916"?
Brandis 4001  ? eBay; box for 4345 no WB
Brandis 4037  ? eBay; stencil on box for 4487 WS

Brandis 4234  ? stencil on box

Brandis 4234  ? stencil on box

Brandis 4483 1918-11-30 Box contains #4129, NO # 1530. None on box nor on Navy collation certificate. WS

Brandis 4798 1919-01-30 ebay no no. Contains sextant 4836/2607. WS

Brandis 5360  ? eBay; stencil on box for 3987

Brandis 5687 Plate on box says "Fiala Outfits, Inc. ..."
Brandis 5953 184 imprinted twice on lens bracket 184?

Brandis 5996 1920-10-08 Live Auctioneers. Maker's No.: 5996 crossed out on inspection certificate. 6006 written in green ink. 5996 punch-stamped on box in large numbers near hasp. "Weems 805W" in upper-right corner of certificate--pencil? different ink? Class: Aviation. Sticker: "Directional Laboratory Instrument Service, Nautical - Aeronautical - Industrial, Ivanhoe, Baltimore, MD."

Brandis 6006 5996? Live Auctioneers. In box for 5996? Quadrant? Yes? Wired with on/off switch, light. 5996 punch-stamped on box in large numbers near hasp. "Weems 805W" in upper-right corner of certificate--pencil? different ink? Class: Aviation. Sticker: "Directional Laboratory Instrument Service, Nautical - Aeronautical - Industrial, Ivanhoe, Baltimore, MD."

Buff & Buff 13024 1919-04-24 La Timonerie Antiquities. Manufactured 1908? Class: Survey 13024 on box & inspection. Inlaid shield--seems to be blank.

Looking for patterns in the data

There seems to be some correlation between the dates of calibration by the Naval Observatory and the number given to the sextant by the Observatory.

The numbers issued in 1919 seem to be in ascending order by date, but they are out of sequence compared to the rest of the table.

With the 1919 numbers removed, most of the rest of the numbers are in ascending order by date. Two of those sextants (2977 and 2975) are bubble mods for the Navy transatlantic flight in May of that year.

Ordered by N.O. number; anomalous rows marked in grey.
Maker Maker No. Navy No. Inspection date
Keuffel & Esser (in W&S box) 4940 415 1936-01-29
Keuffel & Esser 5418 575 1918-04-16
Buff & Buff 11778 1065 1918-05-12
Keuffel & Esser 37548 1555 1919-10-24
Brandis 3483 1567 1932-01-27
Brandis 3987 1584 1938-11-30
Brandis 3527 1599 1933-05-04
Brandis 4297 1880 1939-09-18
Brandis 4279 2531 1941-07-23
Brandis 5620 2939 1919
Brandis 5296 2977 1919-03-16
Brandis 5292 2975 1919-03-26
Brandis 4765 4267 1938-11-15
David White (1943) 17649 17649-43 1946-07-19

Brandis production eras

John Kada, Forum (19 Oct 2012)
According to a brief history of Brandis given on the Smithsonian web site, Brandis slightly changed its name three times during its existence, and therefore the way the Brandis company name is marked on a sextant can potentially tell us something about when it was manufactured.
“Frederick Ernest Brandis (1845–1916) was born in Germany, came to the United States in 1858, worked for Stackpole & Brothers for a few years, and then opened his own instrument shop in 1871. The firm became F. Brandis & Co. in 1875, F. E. Brandis, Sons & Co. in 1890, and Brandis & Sons Mfg. Co. in 1916. The Pioneer Instrument Company purchased control of Brandis in 1922, and sold it to the Bendix Aviation Corporation in 1928. The manufacture of Brandis instruments ceased in 1932.”
So, we have three Brandis eras:
- The ‘F. Brandis & Co.’ era, from 1875 to 1890;
- The ‘F. E. Brandis, Sons, & Co.’ era, from 1890 to 1916;
- The ‘Brandis & Sons Mfg. Co.’ era, from 1916 to 1932.

Navy number schemes

Art Rypinski
In the late 1920s, the Navy changed their serial numbering scheme, just about the time aircraft octant became avialable. . Later serial numbers took the form XX-YY, where YY is the year of acquisition. If the octant that Fred Noonan took on the world flight originated with the Navy, it would probably would have had an XX-YY serial number, where the year element would fall between 27 and 38. However, Noonan might have bought his own octant, or scrounged it from Pan Am, in which case the form of the serial number is anyone's guess. (Army Air Corps also used YY-XXXX serial numbers from 1940 and perhaps earlier). Octants and octant boxes have a distinctive and peculiar shape. We can be pretty certain that the 3500/1542 box was not an octant box.
The 3500/1542 inscription is particularly interesting because it is consistent with a particular moment in time (1918-1921), a particular institution (the US Navy and USNO), and a particular make of sextant (Brandis). During this period, we know that the Navy modified a number of Brandis sextants in aviation/bubble/"Byrd" sextants, and we know that Noonan's friend Cmdr. Weems owned several modified Brandis sextants because he much later donated them to the Smithsonian.
We also know that Noonan carried a nautical sextant on the China Clipper flight, and we have a contemporary photo showing a Brandis sextant box sitting next to an octant on the navigator's shelf of the China Clipper. We do not have any direct evidence that Noonan carried a sextant on the world flight, nor any direct evidence of the make or serial number of any hypothesized sextant. So, there are still some links missing in this chain of evidence.
However, it would very interesting to demonstrate that the Navy once owned a Brandis sextant with the serial numbers 3500/1542, and even more interesting if it could be shown that this particular sextant had been modified as an aircraft sextant. It would be yet more interesting if this sextant could be linked to Weems, Pan Am, or Noonanj. It would also be interesting (in a negative way) if the sextant turned up in an inconvenient location (like aboard a ship) in July 1937.
Some things to look for:
  • Listing of sextants surplused, with serial numbers.
  • Listing of sextants sent or received for modification as byrd or bubble or aviation sextants;
  • listing of sextants calibrated by USNO, with serial numbers.

Keuffel & Esser production dates

John Kada, Forum, 4 October 2012.
In the table below I list the N.O. number, Keuffel & Esser serial number, date of manufacture as indicated by the table from Surveying Antiques,[9] and date of the eccentricity certificate we have for the sextant. The last sextant in the table is the sextant that I mentioned in reply #99, whose N.O. number we don't have.
N.O. # K&E # K&E year E.C. year
405 18446 1908 N/A
415 4940 1901 1936
575 5418 1901 1918
664 33839 1916 N/A
1555 37548 1918 1919
3227 36961 1918 1937
The dates of manufacture would of course be the earliest the sextants could have appeared at the Naval Observatory, while the eccentricity certificate dates may represent re-certifications rather that the first certification of the sextant.
The K&E sextant with an N.O. number 1555 is only a few removed from our holy grail sextant, N.O. #1542; if we have a correct date for the K&E sextant then it would seem that the sextant with N.O. #1542 passed through the Naval Observatory for the first time in 1918 or 1919. It is interesting to note that the Ludolph sextant that Noonan gave to a fellow Pan Am pilot, has a manufacture date of 1919 (as indicated by the Roman numerals XIX).


Ric Gillespie
If we throw out the 1919 numbers as an anomaly, along with K&E #4940, we can say that the assignment of N.O. number 1542 (on the Niku box) might have occurred circa 1930/31 and that the instrument was still in the Navy inventory at that time. Noonan went to work for Pan Am in 1930. Pan Am acquired the landing rights to Honolulu, Midway, Wake and Guam in 1934 and began assembling its Pacific Division with Noonan as the lead navigator.
In other words, Noonan's acquisition of Brandis 3500/N.O. 1542 as surplus sometime between 1934 and 1936 seems possible.
Art Rypinski
Keep in mind that Brandis made thousands of sextants during the period 1918-1920 or so, which left the peacetime Navy with far more sextants than they could ever use. The Naval Observatory Annual Reports for the period describe surplusing of large number of instruments. According to the Smithsonian, Brandis was acquired by the Pioneer Instrument Co. in 1922, and "the manufacture of Brandis instruments ceased in 1932." I think it would be reasonable to believe that almost all of the Brandis sextants in circulation were actually manufactured in 1918-1920, and that none were manufactured after 1932. Further, the Naval Observatory appears to have changed its numbering plan (at least for aviation octants) in the late 1920s, and begin issuing NO numbers with the form XXXX-YY, where YY was the year of original calibration. Therefore, I believe that all of the post-1930 calibration dates are recalibrations of sextants that were originally calibrated and issued their NO numbers in 1918-1920. Hence, I hypothesize that neither the maker’s number nor the NO number of sextants calibrated after 1930 has any relationship with the calibration date.
  1. 3500/NO 1542 could have been surplused and put into private hands at any point after 1920. If 3500/1542 was a Byrd Sextant, however, I speculate that it would have been relatively rare and would have been kept in service until aviation octants became relatively plentiful--say, early 1930s?

Sextants, Octants, Quadrants

P. V. H. Weems, Air Navigation, 1938, second edition, p. 301
Since an arc of 45 degrees is one-eighth of a circle, instruments of this general type, having a maximum angle of 45 degrees between the two reflectors, are known as octants. Instruments having an arc or limb of 60 degrees, or one-sixth of a circle, for measuring the angle between reflectors are called sextants, and those having arcs of 90 degrees, or one-quarter of a circle are called quadrants. Either octants or sextants are suitable for aerial use, but the quadrant is too bulky. For a great many years practically all instruments used by marine navigators for measuring altitudes have been sextants, and the term sextant has become so generally used that it is now applied to all instruments for measuring altitudes of heavenly bodies whether they are actually quadrants, sextants, or octants.

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  1. "Update on Byrd Aircraft Sextant."
  2. Shoes p. 232.
  3. Ibid. p. 233.
  4. Sky and Ocean Joined: The U.S. Naval Observatory, 1830-2000, by Steven J. Dick, Cambridge University Press, 2003; p. 507.
  5. Model #5227, manufactured about 1915/16, with K & E serial number 31475.
  6. There was an earlier Naval Observatory "Cert" card that had been glued inside the lid, but there is no written information left on its remains, and only just enough paper and printing to tell with certainty that is what it was. So this confirms that it had been "Certified" by the Naval Observatory at a much earlier date, most certainly in the "teens" when it was still quite new, but sadly the actual date of that earlier inspection, and any of its results. have been lost to us.
  7. The collimation label gives the Maker No. as 2919. 5310 is stamped in ink on the box while 2919 is impressed in the wood.
  8. Andrew McKenna: If "DD 359" does indicate service aboard US Destroyer USS Winslow, it is interesting that they were still issuing 1920s sextants to ships being commissioned as late as 1937.
  9. "How To Date Your Keuffel & Esser (K&E) Instruments."

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