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This instrument revolutionised navigation because it was now possible to take readings of, for example, the height of the Sun with unsurpassed accuracy and speed. In connection with John Harrison’s invention, the chronometer, the art of navigation reached heights of development never known before and one can say confidently without exaggeration, that these two inventions were the most important prerequisites for the spreading world wide of the British Empire.
The principle is ingenious and at the same time amazingly simple: A rotating mirror makes it possible to bring the images of the point to be measured and of the horizon or another point of reference to coincide, and the angle of the distance between the two is simply read on a scale. It is hardly surprising that the sextant was often the most precious possession of a seaman and that it is, even today, along with the anchor and the compass the most famous nautical symbol.