I was talking to a friend the other day about something we both love: old brass instruments. Sextants, telescopes, astrolabes, marine clocks, that sort of thing. He told me about a London company who, when the British Empire was absolutely at its zenith, led the world in the manufacture of specialist brass instruments: Negretti & Zambra.
Enrico Negretti and Joseph Zambra started their company in 1850, which was run by them and their descendents until well after WWII. They had shops firstly in Regent Street and later on at Holborn Viaduct. The company was highly successful from the start, winning a medal at the Great Exhibition in 1851 and counting among their customers the Astronomer Royal, Prince Albert, the Royal Observatory and Admiral Robert Fitzroy. In the early days they specialised in barometers and thermometers, particularly those required for taking deep sea and atmospheric measurements, which until they came on the scene were terribly unreliable. Later on they increased their range to include telescopes, gun sights, theodolites and similar optical instruments. During World War II, N&Z expanded substantially to meet the demand for instruments for war planes in particular. Their instruments were also produced under licence to supply the USAAF.
Read more about this remarkable London company here, here and here. In particular, look out for the bizarre story of how Enrico Negretti successfully pursued a private prosecution for a murder, resulting in both “his” suspect and the Crown’s suspect being convicted for the same offence.
Negretti & Zambra instruments can still be purchased at reasonable prices, typically anything between £50 and £300.
Update: a reader writes:
This is in a wooden box which says H.M.S. TAKU HAI-HSI 17th JUNE,1900. (this is inlaid brass on top of box) The item (s) in this box consist of a brass rectangular and trianglar top. Maybe a shade of some sort. On one side it says Negretti & Zambra, London, in script engraved in the brass, the other side says Hirsbrunner & Co. Shanghai. also engraved in the brass. The box also has a very heavy steel item that looks like a small can, with a “cone” shape top, there is also a very heavy steel “tray”. Each item has it’s own seperated compartment to keep each item from moving.The box is heavy, hand made with brass hinges, tiny lock, and one handle on one end. It was in my late father’s possessions. When he was very young he was in the Navy, his life’s occupation was an inventor of optometric instruments, an optomitrist, with a passion for sailing. He also lectured and traveled all over the world. Any information you could provide would be sincerely appreciated.
Check out the images below. If any experts on nautical weather or navigation instruments have any clues, please let us know via Comments or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.