Armillary Spheres

A Garden History & Design One-Minute Report
from the Smithsonian Institute, Archives of American Gardens 
By Brittany Spencer-King, Smithsonian Gardens Intern 
Submitted by Lindsay Dodge 

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 fabricated out of wood, but as they became more complex they were made of brass, which withstood the elements out of doors.  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. 

Because they were used outside where the sky was visible, armillary globes have become a common decorative feature in gardens. Today’s armillary spheres for garden use are strictly decorative in nature and much more streamlined than their ancient counterparts (think fewer rings inside the globe). While they no longer serve as a way to monitor the stars, they remain a symbol of progress and ingenuity throughout time.  

Click here to go to the Garden Club of America Web site to read the full report.