What is the difference between a barnacle and a binnacle? Anyone? Anyone? Well, yes, both are related to the sea, but the difference ends there. A barnacle is a small marine animal that likes to attach itself to the bottom of unsuspecting boats, giving the boat owner yet another reason to spend money on getting rid of them. As far as I know, barnacles, have little interest to collectors. A binnacle, on the other hand, is a different story. Binnacles are large enclosures to a ship’s compass, both protecting this key navigational instrument from damage and aiding in its accuracy. Let’s skip the former but take a salty look at the latter.
Long before GPS and all of today’s electronic gimmickry, magnetic compasses were a vital source of information to navigators across the seven seas. Their exact origin is uncertain although it appears that magnetized needles able to point north were used in Europe as early as the Middle Ages. The magnetic action was the result of rubbing the needle against a naturally occurring magnetic lodestone. Once a satisfactory result was obtained, the needle would either be placed in water or mounted on a pivot so that it could move freely.
Advances came slowly but surely through the centuries so that by the 15th century magnetic needles were being mounted atop cards inscribed with the by-then universal 32-point compass rose. As long-range exploration continued, compasses were further refined so that by the early 1800s ship’s compasses were mounted in gimballed bowls to keep them level in a rolling sea. The use of binnacles arose both as a framework for the gimbals and to protect the compass from damage. An oil lamp or windowed top would also help illuminate the compass at night.
As more time went by and iron was introduced into a ship’s construction, it became apparent that the presence of iron around a compass would affect its accuracy. This became known as deviation. While the binnacles themselves were made of non-magnetic wood or brass, large iron balls known as quadrantal spheres were added on either side of the binnacle to compensate for deviation error. Further adjustments could be made with a deviastat mounted underneath the compass and additional iron rods in back.
Up until the age of electronic navigation, no seagoing vessel would leave port without a compass and binnacle, and almost all still carry one today. Small boats and yachts are usually outfitted with shelf binnacles while larger naval and commercial vessels are equipped with deck-mounted binnacles the size of R2D2. When cleaned and polished, both are gorgeous instruments in their gleaming wood or brass skins and a wide variety of functional ornamentation.
While originals are not cheap, they are still among the most sought-after of maritime collectibles. If you’re thinking about yet another plant for that empty corner of your living room, consider a binnacle instead. Its prior travels will provide spark to your imagination.
Mike Rivkin and his wife, Linda, are longtime residents of Rancho Mirage. For many years, he was an award-winning catalogue publisher and has authored seven books, along with countless articles. Now, he’s the owner of Antique Galleries of Palm Springs. His antiques column appears Saturdays in The Desert Sun. Want to send Mike a question about antiques? Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.