Who invented the Protractor? (Invention Timeline Explained)

Anyone who’s had to go through relatively advanced mathematics through their schooling knows full well how the protractor works. In essence, the protractor is an instrument used to measure angles. It doesn’t seem like much, but did you know the protractor is also used to help sailors navigate? For a time, the protractor was just one of a sailor’s many best friends.

The protractor has a storied history — one that’s well worth visiting and studying. For those interested in the development and evolutions of the protractor, keep on reading!

Who invented the first protractor?

While there are many recorded instances of instruments similar to the protractor, the device we all know and love was developed by Thomas Blundeville, who wrote the book: A Brief Description of Universal Mappes and Cardes. In the book, he uses the protractor for navigational charts.

The protractor’s key contributors (and evolution)

  • Kha
    The ancient Egyptian architect

    One of the first recorded instances of instruments that resembled the protractor was found in the tomb of Kha, an ancient Egyptian architect. It goes to show the timelessness of human ingenuity.

  • Thomas Blundeville
    Known inventor of the protractor

    Thomas Blundeville is credited as the inventor of the protractor based on his book, where he uses a protractor for the navigational charts.

  • Joseph Huddart
    The US naval captain known for redesigning the protractor

    While the protractor had already been around for quite some time, Joseph Huddart developed a new kind of protractor that would help calculate the position of the ship at sea. 

  • Various mathematicians
    The development of protractors over the years

    There are various mathematicians over the next few centuries that would make little design changes to help further their research. There were so many different versions that the protractor became the industry standard in mathematics

When was the protractor invented?

The first protractor was invented by Thomas Blundeville in 1561, when he released his book about maps and charts. He used the famed instrument as his measurement tool for navigational charts, resulting in just about every mathematician (and sailor) using the protractor for all kinds of things.

A brief history of the protractor

The protractor is one of those measurement instruments that are timeless when it comes to overall use. While the first protractor might have been invented in 1561, it isn’t the very first time an instrument similar to the protractor popped up. In fact, archaeologists found an instrument resembling a protractor in the tomb of Kha, an ancient Egyptian architect. It feels like Egypt had just about every invention when you think about it, as it isn’t the first time the origin of an invention points to Egypt.

That said, the very first protractor that wasn’t found in an ancient tomb was the one developed by Thomas Blundeville. It got its start in his book, where he uses the protractor to get accurate measurements with maps and charts. Needless to say, this started the golden age of protractors, as within the next few hundred years, just about everyone is using it for one reason or another.

For example, the seventeenth century is rife with stories of sailors using the protractor to navigate through the open sea. Joseph Huddart, a US naval captain, ended up developing a more advanced version of the protractor used for navigation in 1810.

Mathematicians from all over the world would also get their hands on the protractor. Some would make changes based on their research, and many different protractors were invented as a result. In the modern age, the protractor is an industry staple in the field of mathematics due to so many mathematicians of the previous age using the simple yet effective instrument. 

The protractor timeline

  1. 1400 BC
    The Egyptian protractor

    An instrument resembling the protractor was found in the tomb of an ancient Egyptian architect dated to be around 1400 BC.

  2. 1561
    A Brief Description of Universal Mappes and Cardes

    In this book written by Thomas Blundeville, the protractor is used for the first time to help develop navigational charts. This sparks worldwide interest in the protractor.

  3. 1810
    The development of a new protractor

    While the protractor had already been used as a navigational tool in open sea, Joseph Huddart improved on the design, allowing one to calculate their location. 

  4. 19th century onwards
    Perfecting the protractor

    Various mathematicians are credited for making little improvements and taking the protractor in various directions.

Where was the protractor invented?

The first protractor was invented in Norfolk, an English County. This was where Thomas Blundeville wrote the book featuring the protractor.

The importance of the protractor

  • A tool used for navigation

    The protractor’s ability to measure angles make it one of the most crucial instruments for navigating at sea. Joseph Huddart’s design further improved on the protractor’s ability to help sailors navigate.

  • A timeless instrument

    It’s almost mind-boggling to think that an instrument remarkably similar to the protractor was dated to be around 1400 BC. It is close enough to be considered a protractor in its own right.

  • A crucial instrument in mathematics and geometry

    The protractor was remarkably popular among famed mathematicians over the years. They had a habit of making improvements, taking it into entirely new directions. 

  • Life in angles

    Angles are used frequently in daily life. You’ll find mathematicians, architects, scientists, and just about everyone writing down mathematical formulae use a protractor at some point.

The protractor by the numbers

  • 3The number of arms in the protractor design of Joseph Huddart. The protractor was aptly named three arm protractor, and it was used primarily for navigation.
  • 360The circular protractor could make measurements up to 360 degrees — a full circle. The circular protractor is one of the most common tools used by architects and engineers.
  • 400There are some circular protractors that are marked in gradians up to 400. There are plenty of different protractors out there with minor changes depending on its primary function.
  • 1The steel protractor is a different version of the usual protractor, and is exact to 1 degree. This particular protractor is used in the development of metalworks and various tools. It’s also considered a mechanical protractor.

Five facts about the protractor

  • The different types of protractor

    As an instrument for measuring angles, it’s only natural that the protractor has quite a few different types to help with various jobs. This includes: Circular, Semicircular, Military, Universal Vernier Bevel, Optical Bevel, and Steel.

  • The zero edge

    The zero edge is the flat side of a semicircular protractor. Halfway across the zero edge you’ll find the center mark — which is what you’ll use to read and measure angles. All you have to do is place the center mark on the very point of the angle you want to measure.

  • The companion of the protractor

    When it comes to the overall use of the protractor, you’ll often find people using compasses alongside it. The compass is used to help draw arcs and circles, and the protractor is used to measure and draw angles.

  • A different way to tackle mathematics

    The reason why so many mathematicians love the protractor so much is how it allows them to tackle mathematics and geometry in new ways. The protractor and compass duo is often used in school precisely due to that fact.

  • The digital protractor

    Aside from the original instrument and its many iterations, there’s also the digital protractor. It can measure the angle automatically without the user having to do any of the heavy lifting.

FAQ about the protractor

  • How many angles does a protractor have exactly?

    As far as the creation of angles go, the protractor can measure angles anywhere between 0-360 degrees. The markings of the protractor were made to be used in two ways 0-180 degrees from left to right and vice versa.

  • Is it possible to make a protractor at home?

    Typically, the easiest way to make your own protractor at home would be to print and cut out the design. If you want the best possible results, you can print in transparency film to get the desired effect. The amazing thing about protractors is how easy they can be to make and distribute.

  • Why is there a hole in the middle of the protractor?

    When you look into the design of the protractor, it’s always a transparent instrument to help you measure angles easily. The hole in the middle of the protractor is there to align over the vertex of the measured angle. It seems complicated at first, but it’s a relatively simple function once you get used to it.

  • What professions need a protractor?

    Considering that the protractor is the primary measuring instrument for angles, you’ll find that every profession using angles will make good use of the protractor. This can include scientists, teachers, architects, mathematicians, and so much more. There are so many professions that use protractors that it’s well worth practicing the measuring instrument on your own!

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