An old navigation tool finds its way to a downtown island antiques shop
It stood on the deck of a World War II Navy warship, guiding sailors at sea using centuries-old technology to navigate unknown waters. This brass housing is called a binnacle and stands almost 5 feet high and weighs about 200 pounds.
Michael and Adrienne Culpepper, owners of Nautical Antiques & Tropical Décor, 2202 Mechanic St. in Galveston, acquired the piece from a private collection. This piece, manufactured in 1941 by the Lionel Corp. for the Navy’s Bureau of Navigation, is a rare find because all the original parts are intact, Michael Culpepper said.
The binnacle supports the magnetic compass, which uses the Earth’s polarity and natural magnetic field to indicate north, helping sailors travel through unfamiliar seas. The compass sits in the center of the binnacle, covered by a glass skylight shield, which protects the sensitive equipment. A light is mounted inside the top of the structure to illuminate the compass at night. The binnacle usually is placed on the bridge or at the helm of the ship, adjacent to the steering wheel. The helmsman, or person who steers the ship, needs to be close to the compass for quick and easy reference.
On the exterior side of the compass are large metal balls — usually the one on the port is red and the one on the starboard is green. These heavy orbs are called compensating balls and their job is to keep the compass accurate and to correct any deviation. Ferrous metal aboard the ship would complicate the magnetic field, so the compensating balls are mounted to balance and equally pull in both directions, permitting the compass to adjust and give a true reading, Culpepper said. Because wood, brass and bronze are non-ferrous, they have no effect on the magnetic field and are compass-safe.
The white-faced compass was built by the Leitz Co. of San Francisco. The binnacle’s manufacturer, Lionel Corp., was best known as the maker of toy trains since 1906. But during the war, the company stopped producing the metal trains and instead mobilized to make nautical equipment in its New Jersey facility for the U.S. Navy.
Binnacles of this size and quality are usually sold to display in restaurants, offices or in large beach houses.
“These binnacles were the most important piece of equipment as far as navigation is concerned,” Culpepper said. “It tells you where you are headed. Without it, you wouldn’t know where you were going.”
This binnacle sells for $5,500.