Federal ahoy!

Visitors to the monthly film nights at Federal Hall are sometimes distracted by something weird lurking in the corner that looks vaguely like a nineteenth century robot. Further investigation reveals that this is a binnacle. So what is a binnacle, and how did it find its way to Federal?


Binnacles are ships’ navigational aids that first made an appearance in the 1700s, and which became more sophisticated over time. This particular one has an interesting history that is posted on the wall nearby. It belonged to the Orion, a luxury liner that was built in 1934 for the Orient Steam Navigation Company, also known as the Orient Lane, and which travelled back and forth between the UK and Australia. Many Australian immigrants arrived this way.

During the Second World War, the Orion was requisitioned as a troop ship, and when peacetime arrived she was converted back to civilian use. Between 1947 and 1963, she continued her service, and made three detours to North America. At this point, despite being functional, she was retired from service, in a decision that was largely based on economics. Passenger numbers were declining, and she was outclassed by larger liners. In 1963 she was broken up in Antwerp.

Federal Young Farmers won awards for being the Most Progressive Club in the state, three years running, in 1959, 1960, and 1961. It is not known which criteria were used to judge the quality of progressiveness, but each time they won a prize of a hundred guineas (with a guinea equivalent to 21 shillings, or just over a pound in Australia’s former currency.) The binnacle was awarded to Federal Junior Farmers in 1965 to mark this hat-trick, and while there was probably a connection between P&O-Orient Lines (P&O Lines having merged with Orient by this time) and the village of Federal, for now it remains a mystery.

A binnacle of this type is located in front of the wheel, and is bolted to the deck. Its main feature is a compass, protected by glass and mounted on a pivoted support known as a gimbal that keeps the compass level as the ship pitches and rolls with the waves.


The cylinder with a cord leading into it is a lamp that plugs into the mains. The part at the top that looks a little like an older-style computer monitor has an adjustable mirror that can be swivelled to the desired angle, and below is a magnifier that enhances the view of the  compass.


The strange-looking spheres on either side are actually iron balls that were positioned there to prevent the compass operation being adversely affected by magnetic attraction to the ship’s hull. Colloquially these were known as ‘Kelvin’s Balls’ after Lord Kelvin who patented this improved design.

A close-up of the front clinometer

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