Cabinet of Curiosities

Architectural Curios
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These are some interesting historic tools used by Architects in our office since its establishment in 1850. All architectural drawings were done in the past by hand, using pencil and pen with the aid of draftsmen’s instruments. Almost all drawing today is carried out using computers, however pencil and paper is still used for initial concept sketches that require a spontaneous and immediate record of design ideas. The manual drawing and measurement instruments have vanished from architectural practice, although we keep some beautiful examples. They were kindly passed on to us by Mr Glen Pride, one of our practice’s former Directors.

Geared Surveying Cross with Compass and Vernier

This is an instrument for setting off right angles for off-sets in architectural surveys, c. 1890. This sophisticated surveying “cross” has a tapered staff mount supporting the full assembly, which is manually rotatable and clampable.


This is an air movement metering device that was used by architects and surveyors to measure the draft air in chimneys, c. 1890. It could be mounted on a rod as it has a ring fitting underneath.


These old binoculars were used for visual building surveys.

Precision Drawing Instruments

The ruling pens, compasses and dividers were used with ink and pencils, to measure and to draw straight or curved lines. These instruments were used pretty much until late 1950-s when Rapidograph became popular. Rapidograph came with its own compass set.

Spirit Levels

Wooden ruler / level meter Vintage Spirit level tool John Rabone and Sons c 1930


Compass was used for establishing orientation during a site survey.

Proportional Polar Planimeter

This is a high precision instrument, c 1890-s. The proportional polar planimeter was used to calculate the area of an irregular shape by tracing the outline. It was invented and manufactured by Jakob Amsler-Laffon, a Swiss mathematician at Zurich university, in 1854.


The slide rules were used to measure and calculate sophisticated mathematical equations; their production stopped in 1978 when electronic calculators made slide rules redundant. Straight rules were for drawing and measuring architectural plans. Shown here are old rules in Imperial measurement system (marked Edinburgh). They were changed in 1965 when the Metric system was adopted in Scotland, although the Imperial system was still in use for a long time after. The folding Imperial rules were used to measure building details and accommodations.


These Professional Stylus Sets specially made for those who need extra fine detailing work. Used for many applications and by craftsmen, they were used by architects to transfer drawings from blueprint.

Parallel Rules

These parallel rules, c. 1850s, were made to plot courses, bearings, and celestial lines of position in nautical navigation. A pair of triangles can do the same, however course plotters are designed to minimize effort in laying out angles. In our architectural practice they were used to draw parallel lines on plans and elevations.

Pocket Book

This is a curious tiny Pocket Book “Of Tables and Memoranda for Plumbers, Architects, Sanitary Engineers &c, &c”, published by R.J. Bush & Co in 1893. Its size is of a standard business card! On the page 175 there is an article “Infectious Diseases”, subtitled “Precautions Necessary to be observed”. It offers advice that still resonates given the COVID-19 pandemic.

Measuring Tape

Vintage 33ft tape measure by John Rabone & Sons, Birmingham, used to measure buildings and construction sites.

Measuring Chains

The 100 ft chain is one of the longest-in-use instruments in surveying; it was used to measure land and buildings. The first mention of a survey chain – so called “wyer line” – dates from 1590. This chain was made by Chesterman, Sheffield, England, around 19c. It is difficult to date it as the factory used the same logo for more than a century.

Clutch Sharpener

This pencil sharpener was invented in 1939 by Georges Dessonnaz, to sharpen clutch pencils. This is one of the sharpener designs that are still used by architects today.

Drawing Board

Architects drawing board as a specially made adjustable drawing table probably evolved from the artist’s easel and was used from 19 century. This is one of the 20th century models and is now replaced by computers.

Rotary Sharpener

The rotary pencil sharpener was invented by French mathematician Bernard Lassimonne in 1828. This one is a German ‘Eagle Sword’ desk top model c.1970 that we still use occasionally for sharpening wood pencils.