Cosmic Tracking Banknotes

Posted on 3/15/2016

What are astrolabes and why are they on banknotes?

Astrolabes, Greek meaning “star-taker,” measure the angle of inclination of an object, and were historically used in timekeeping, surveying, geography, and astronomy. Scientists used them to find the time of day or the time of a celestial event (like sunrise or sunset). The astrolabe was frequently used during the Renaissance (1300 – 1700) and was even used by Christopher Columbus while sailing across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492.

Portugal Pick# 186, front
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Portugal Pick# 186, back
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A few weeks ago, the above note came across my desk and a few things really caught my attention. Portugal tends to use beautiful color combinations on their banknotes; modern and vintage. The brown and blue overprint with multi-colored underprint complements the design, naturally drawing attention towards the center of the note. On the obverse is Bartolomeu Dias (c. 1450-1500) with an astrolabe, while the reverse has his ship and an armillary sphere (also known as a spherical astrolabe). Armillary spheres are used to show the relative positions of the celestial equator, ecliptic, and other circles on the celestial sphere.

Mariner's Astrolabe
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Dias’ objective was to sail the southern end of Africa to find a route to Asia. He became the first European mariner to round the southern tip of Africa, opening the way for a route from Europe to Asia. Because of Dias’ voyage, Europeans quickly realized they could avoid heavy fees using trade routes on land and use sea travel instead. Dias died at age 50 on a separate voyage after being caught in a violent storm off the coast of Africa.

Disassembled Astrolabe
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Portugal Pick 186 has multiple varieties. The note comes in diverse signature combinations and date range 1991 to 1993. I find this note very attractive with an interesting history behind it. Eventually, I plan to acquire Pick 186 for my own personal collection.

South Korea, Bank of Korea, Pick# 56, ND (2007) 10,000 Won,
PMG Graded 66 Gem Uncirculated EPQ, front
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South Korea, Bank of Korea, Pick# 56, ND (2007) 10,000 Won,
PMG Graded 66 Gem Uncirculated EPQ, back
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Pick 56 from South Korea (pictured above) has much more meaning behind it than its crisp beautiful design. The King of Joseon-dynasty Korea, Sejong Great (pictured in the top right side of the image above) hired a peasant by the name of Jang Yeong-sil to create this astrolabe.

Jang was born a peasant and wouldn’t normally be allowed to work for the King, but King Sejong’s new policy allowed civil service workers to work at the royal place. This policy was based off selecting officials based on their talent, not their wealth or social class.

First Korean Armillary Sphere by Jang
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Sejong’s first assignment to Jang was to build an armillary sphere to measure astronomical objects. Books were obtained from Arabian and Chinese scholars but were not complete in their instructions. This was particularly important because these devices could also be used for military purposes. Jang’s first project was a success and he continued to work for the King later inventing the water clock, sundial, the rain gauge and water gauge.

South Korea Pick 56 is surely a note I plan on acquiring sometime in the near future. This whole series, Pick 54 through 57, would make for an exceptional looking collection; colored blue, red, green, and yellow respectively. Considering the face value of 10,000 Won is about 8 US Dollars, the price to purchase one of these won’t break the bank. If you’re like me and looking for modern banknotes with opulent history, you may want to look into adding this note (or notes) to your collection.

Astrolabe in the opening title sequence of Game of Thrones
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I’m a fan of the popular T.V. Series Game of Thrones, and recently noticed an astrolabe in the opening title sequence. I thought this was relevant considering the handful of modern banknotes from around the world that have astrolabes on them.

In summary, astrolabes were particularly popular during the Renaissance and were used for finding the time of day or the time of a celestial event. The reason for having an astrolabe on a banknote varies depending on which country the banknote is from and which person is on the banknote. Whether you are new to paper money or have been a collector for years, astrolabes are a unique feature on banknotes and make a great addition to your own personal collection.


PMG is an independent member of the Certified Collectibles Group (CCG).

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