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News: From the GCA Collection at the Archives of American Gardens: Armillary Spheres


June 11, 2018


Armillary sphere, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1771 (from Wikipedia)

Like any number of inventions, the origins of the armillary sphere are debated and credited to everyone from an ancient Greek philosopher to a Roman mathematician and a Chinese astronomer. The one commonality: the sphere was created with the faulty supposition that the earth was the center of the universe.

Armillary spheres served as a model of the heavens, with intersecting rings marking everything from latitude and longitude to the tropic of Cancer. The name was derived from the Latin word armilla, meaning bracelet or ring. Early spheres were wood, but as they became more complex they were made of brass, which withstood the outdoor elements. As with most objects of science, armillary spheres progressed as new discoveries were made. The Chinese used them to make calendar computations and calculations. During the Middle Ages, they served as sophisticated instruments used to map the solar system. Soon rings were added to mark the equator and the rotation of the sun, moon, and known planets, making these spheres some of the first complex mechanical devices.

Used outside where the sky was visible, armillary spheres became a common garden feature. Today’s armillary spheres for garden use are strictly decorative and much more streamlined than their ancient counterparts, with fewer rings inside the globe. While they no longer serve as a way to monitor the stars, armillary spheres remain a symbol of progress and ingenuity throughout time.

A leader in preserving America’s gardening history, the GCA for a quarter-century has partnered with the Smithsonian Institution in the Archives of American Gardens (AAG). In 1992, the GCA donated its collection of 3,500 rare glass lantern slides and more than 22,000 35mm slides to the Smithsonian, forming the core of the AAG, which documents gardens from the 1870s to the present. The legacy continues, as GCA clubs document and propose contemporary gardens for inclusion in the archives, growing the collection to more than 7,500 gardens and 100,000 images today, a significant source for research.

Garden images from The Garden Club of America Collection, Archives of American Gardens, Smithsonian Gardens


Finale, Carmel, CA. 2009. Bonnie Brooks, photographer

Marschalk-Spencer, Natchez, MS.July2002.

Sarah G. Tillman, photographer


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