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Map measure of the month: John Hand & Sons “Miledial”

This map measure is a quality instrument from a well-known French manufacturer, but with a twist. The Miledial was especially made for export to the US market, to be sold by one of the premier retailers of nautical instruments

Miledial map measure in the hand

The Miledial is simple to use- zero the needle. Hold the measure at less than vertical, and trundle the tracking wheel at the base of the case along a line on a map, drawing or chart. Read off the measured distance at the appropriate scale The Miledial is comfortable to use and well sized to the hand, measuring 116mm long, including a 67.4mm handle, x 35.7mm diameter x 8.5mm across the domed face of the crystal. It weighs 39 grams. The instrument has a hexagonal-in-profile steel handle that screws on to a 5mm threaded section at the top of the polished steel case. The crystal over the dial face is pinned to the case by three tiny screws. Beneath this, a needle indicates measurement.

Miledial- front
Miledial- front
Miledial- rear
Miledial- rear
Miledial has a finely toothed wheel to track paths, lanes, roads, and any other line, across maps
Miledial has a finely toothed wheel to track paths, lanes, roads, and any other line, across maps
Dial face of Miledial
Dial face of Miledial

Three scales are shown on the dial face. The single blued steel needle rotates around three concentric circles measuring 1:20 000 (0-10 numbered increments), 1:40 000 (0-20 numbered increments) and 1:80 000 (0-40 numbered increments), with further un-numbered increments. The “Miledial” name is shown in the centre of the dial face, below the outline of a hand. When I first obtained this measure, I was unaware of the significance of the ‘hand’ on the dial, beyond it being in the centre, around which a single hand rotated. There is more information on this dial face, but it required finding. A little more on that intriguing element later.

At the top of the rear of the case are stamped “Selsi Co” and the word France. These indicate the US importer and country of origin. Following World War II and especially in the 1960s, the Far East began expansion into the fine optics market. Selsi Co. Inc. had been one of the first US importers to open an office in Tokyo, Japan. They also had an overseas office in Paris, France and it was in that country that the Miledial was manufactured, though Selsi also imported map measures manufactured in Germany.

“Selsi is proud to present a large collection of fine optical products including prism binoculars, sport and opera glasses, telescopes, monoculars, readers, and magnifiers”


Selsi were originally called the Sussfeld Lorsch Company and were founded in 1854 to import European products for sale in the USA. In 1876 they were located in New York City but later relocated to New Jersey. Following a third individual joining the company in the late 19th century, it was renamed Sussfeld, Lorsch and Schimmel. In 1929 the business became a limited company and was again renamed, taking its name from the founding partners’ initials, with added vowels- SELSI, though this name had already been registered by them in 1925 and used as a trademark for ‘their’ products. Selsi specialised in the import of quality items such as binoculars, telescopes, microscopes, compasses, barometers, watches and clocks. The Miledial was imported by Selsi for resale in the US however, it was not Selsi who commissioned this instrument.

The Miledial was made by French based Henri Chatelain (HC) and their initials are shown at the bottom of reverse of the case. This shows the HC initials above a curvimeter, the centre of the curvimeter trademark being one of the pivot pins for the internal mechanism cogs. There is also the word Déposé above the trademark. This word is not part of the trademark but simply indicates that the manufacturer has registered the design.

The Selsi company history provides us with extreme dates for the Miledial of 1925-2010, however we are able to narrow this down considerably by looking more closely at the HC manufacturer company history. Henri Chatelain (HC) died in 1921 and his business was taken over by F. Baudet who retained the HC trademark and brand on the measures. This company was subsequently taken over by Henri Burnat (HB) in c1940 and his initials were then used on their map measures. This informs us that the Miledial was likely produced between 1925-c1940.

HC name and brand are shown on the rear of the case
HC trademark is shown on the rear of the case
"Selsi Co France" is stamped on rear of case and indicates US importer and country of origin
“Selsi Co France” is stamped on rear of case and indicates US importer and country of origin

One might also surmise that it was unlikely that manufacture in France continued following the commencement of the Second World War, so this brings the later date to c1939, despite the US not entering the war until December 1941.

Mostly hidden from view at the bottom of the case- Philadelphia is the only discernible word on the outer rim of the paper dial face
Mostly hidden from view text at the bottom of the case- “Philadelphia” is the only discernible word at the outer rim of the paper dial face

Our 1925-c1939 date is derived from external examination of the measure and HC and Selsi company history. However close examination of the dial face shows that the paper dial is an imperfect fit below the crystal and retaining ring, with printed words hidden at the edges. Removing the screw pins and the glass reveals further scale and seller information. We are now shown that this instrument is for measuring Nautical Miles. These are a unit of length used during air, sea, and now space, navigation.

Further printed detail on the dial is revealed once the  crystal is removed
Further printed detail on the dial is revealed once the crystal face is removed

Historically, a nautical mile was defined as an arc length corresponding to 1/60th (one minute) of a degree of latitude. A minute of latitude is not constant across the globe however an average was agreed in principle between most nations. Following agreement by France and other metric nations at the 1929 International Hydrographic Conference, the metric length of a nautical mile was defined as 1852m. However, the US and UK continued to define a nautical mile using an average arcminute (1853.2480m), the UK defined this as 6080 feet, the US as 6080.2 feet. The US adopted the international metric measurement of a nautical mile (1852m) in 1954, the UK followed in 1970. A unit of speed at sea is the knot. One knot equals one nautical mile per hour.

Close up on sellers name on dial
Makers plate from Hand Company binnacle compass.jpeg
Makers plate from Hand Company binnacle compass shows their ‘Hand with compass centre’ trademark

Of further interest is what is printed at the bottom of the paper dial, also revealed when the glass face is removed: “copyright 1930 John E. Hand & Sons Co. Philadelphia“. It is this company’s ‘Hand’ trademark that is shown in the centre of the paper dial face. John Hand sold nautical instruments and from this we can ascertain that this instrument was retailed by them for measuring nautical miles on charts drawn to scales of 1:20 000, 1:40 000 and 1:80 000. This also further narrows down the date of our Miledial measure.

Optician John Enos Hand and his wife Caroline left Liverpool, England to emigrate to the US in 1873 and established his business- ‘John E. Hand’, in Philadelphia the same year. The company manufactured and sold navigational and surveying instruments. These included boxed and wrist compasses, barometers, taffrail logs and clinometers. In addition to rebranding and reselling instruments from other scientific manufacturers, John E. Hand, and his sons, John L. Hand and Bartram Hand, also invented their own instruments alongside patenting improvements to existing instruments. The company built a good reputation as compass adjusters and manufacturers of quality nautical instruments. Hand extended his business to Camden, NJ in 1911. Branches in Baltimore, Boston, New Orleans and Washington followed, and Hand service stations operated in ‘port cities’ until 1956.

John Hand & Sons Taffrail Log- Zephyr, for dragging behind a ship and measuring speed
John Hand & Sons Taffrail Log- Zephyr, for dragging behind a ship to measure speed

Military contracts became their major business. The US Navy was a large customer, and many Hand Company navigational instruments were installed on navy ships before and during World War II. Something must have gone wrong in the latter half of the 20th century because in 1997, Sunset Cliffs Merchandising Corporation purchased the Hand Company and all its assets for just $100 000.

From the above, we are now able to ascertain that the Miledial measure is calibrated to measure nautical miles on charts to three different scales. It was made by reputed instrument maker Henri Chatelain in France, with a measuring capability and paper dial specified by nautical specialist retailer John E. Hand of Philadelphia. It was imported by Selsi Co., to be sold on by Hand in the US. The Miledial model had a brief lifespan, 1930-c1939.

Despite having built a decent reputation for sourcing, importing and selling high quality products, Selsi began to concentrate on inexpensive products and the quality of many, though not all, objects sold under their brand inevitably began to suffer. The reputation of the Selsi name inevitably suffered as a result. The company wound up in 2010.

Three Points of the Compass has looked at a few more Map Measures in detail. Links to these can be found here.

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