H9918 Prototype Kater azimuth compass, wood / glass / metal / paper, designed and made by Captain Henry Kater, England, 1800-1811, presented to Sydney Observatory, Australia, 1874. Click to enlarge.

Kater azimuth compass

Made by Kater, Henry in England, 1811.

This instrument is thought to be the first prototype of a ‘Kater Azimuth Compass’. Henry Kater had joined the British Army in 1799 and was sent to Madras, India, where as an ensign he did surveying work with William Lambton. In 1811, while still engaged in the survey, he devised this azimuth compass, which incorporates a mirror that allows the reading of scales at the same time as observation of a distant object through the sighting vane. Kater produced this compass a year before Charles Schmalc...


Object No.


Object Statement

Prototype Kater azimuth compass, wood / glass / metal / paper, designed and made by Captain Henry Kater, England, 1800-1811, presented to Sydney Observatory, Australia, 1874

Physical Description

An azimuth compass with sight in a wooden storage box with a sliding lid. The compass consists of a cylindrical metal casing with a glass cover through which a circular base plate made from card can be seen. There are numbers written around the edge of the base plate. A hinged arm is screwed to one side of the casing, the hinge allowing the arm to rest on the glass lid. On the opposite side to the hinged arm is a bracket for the sight to be attached. The sight consists of a metal frame, holding a lens angled over a [cracked] mirror. The wooden box is lined with a green baize. The lid of the box lid is made of wood.



This compass is the original prototype azimuth compass invented by Captain Henry Kater in 1811.

The inscription 'H. Kater, Invt.' is hand written on the compass in ink. The scale is also hand inscribed, the numbers being reversed so that they can be read in the mirror. Subsequently 'Kater' compasses with printed cards were made by Thomas Jones.

Thomas Jones was born in 1775 and by 1789 was working for one of the most respected scientific instrument makers of the eighteenth century Jesse Ramsden. Some time after his term with Ramsden he set up his own successful business in Charing Cross, London before going on to be elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1835 and assisting in the formation of the Astronomical Society.

Jones also had a long association with Henry Kater as he constructed compasses and pendulums to Kater's designs. Jones was in turn helped by Kater who communicated his innovations in instruments to the Royal Society before he was elected a Fellow.

King, H., C., The History of the Telescope, Dover Publications, New York, 1955
Holland, J., 'Pioneer of Precision; Captain Henry Kater, FRS', http://sydney.edu.au/museums/exhibitions-events/kater.shtml [ Original link was http://www.usyd.edu.au/museums/whatson/exhibitions/kater1.shtml]


Kater, Henry 1811



'H.Kater. inv.t' written on the numbered card of the compass body signifies that this compass was the original prototype devised by Henry Kater in 1811.

As an ensign, Kater was stationed at Madras on the east coast of India in 1799. He assisted Lieutenant William Lambton in conducting a land survey between the Malabar coast and the coast of Coromandel. "While engaged in the Indian survey, Henry Kater worked out the principle for his first invention, Kater's Compass. This had a card which revolved with the compass and a vertical horsehair was set to show distant objects and thus show their bearing. This was the type of instrument which John Oxley, the Australian explorer, was using a few years later in 1813, and which he described in his journal as "a most valuable instrument, combining all the advantages of the circumferentor, without being so liable to be damaged and put out of order by carriage".

Henry Katers son, Henry Herman Kater, arrived in Australia in 1839. He had inherited many of his father's possessions after the death of his brother Edward and this compass was one of them. He donated most of these objects, including this compass, to Sydney University and Sydney Observatory.

This compass was presented to Sydney Observatory on 17 May, 1874, by Henry Herman Kater, son of Captain Henry Kater.

Macmillan, D. S., The Kater family, 1750-1965, The Kater family?, Sydney, 1966
Holland, J., 'Pioneer of Precision; Captain Henry Kater, FRS', http://www.usyd.edu.au/museums/whatson/exhibitions/kater1.shtml
Lomb, N., 'Earnshaw's Excellent Timekeepers', in Davison, G., Webber, K., 'Yesterday's Tomorrows; the Powerhouse Museum and its precursors 1880-2005', Powerhouse Publishing, 2005
Forwarded to H. M. Secretary of State by Despatch, No. 141, 1847, Federation and Meteorology, http://www.austehc.unimelb.edu.au/fam/1541.html


Kater, Henry


Credit Line

Ex-Sydney Observatory, 1983

Acquisition Date

29 June 1983

Cite this Object


Kater azimuth compass 2017, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 19 December 2018, <https://ma.as/259019>


{{cite web |url=https://ma.as/259019 |title=Kater azimuth compass |author=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences |access-date=19 December 2018 |publisher=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, Australia}}


This object record is currently incomplete. Other information may exist in a non-digital form. The Museum continues to update and add new research to collection records.

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