Daniel Boorstin recognized the clock, the compass, the printing press, the telescope, and the microscope as early world-changing technologies. The magnetic compass is one of these inventions. The compass as a navigational instrument was unquestionably the most significant innovation for global travel. The origin of the compass is obscure despite its significance, and its acceptance was unexpectedly gradual.

Before the compass was invented, European and Asian seafarers navigated the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. Even after its invention, the compass was frequently employed only as a last choice when other techniques failed. Navigation relied on bottom soundings, stars, and textual descriptions of currents, shoreline features, and bottom materials throughout this period. A portion of a pilot’s handbook may say, “…continue sailing until you find soundings of 100 fathoms depth, then veer toward the coast until you find 70 fathoms and a black ooze, then steer for the tallest hill to approach the harbor.” After the development of the compass, particular bearings were added, such as “…sail northwest by north until a 70-foot black ooze-covered bottom is reached…”

First Use of Compass

During the first time of European commerce with Egypt, Syria, Turkey, India, and Southeast Asia, Europeans understood very little about China. This lack of understanding about East Asia remained despite the caravans carrying spices, silks, and ceramics from central Asia to Europe over the Silk Road. Marco Polo, an Italian adventurer, visited China in 1271 and returned three and a half years later, initiating the first substantial flow of information about China. His significant contribution at the time was a book titled The Description of the World, which detailed his travel experiences and numerous insights. In his work, he discusses the Chinese use of a magnetic compass for divination but does not mention its navigational purpose. Also, there is no indication that he returned to Europe using a compass.

In Europe, the magnetic compass was utilized for divination and navigation. Whether it originated in China, as seems likely, or was separately created in Europe, the compass was first used for navigation in the Mediterranean region in the late thirteenth century.

Before the invention of the compass, the Mediterranean Sea was already well-charted using shoreline outlines and wind roses to discern direction. The common direction indication is the wind rise, which is now synonymous with a compass. However, the wind rose was first appropriately termed as an indication of the many wind directions.

If permitted to travel freely, the first magnetic compass was a lodestone, often the mineral magnetite, that oriented itself in a north-south orientation. When rubbed against a lodestone, an iron needle would acquire the same qualities. Whether in China or Europe, the initial use of this inexplicable and strange occurrence was for divination. In China, the compass was a crucial component of feng shui, the art of preserving balance and alignment with nature. Later, navigation was added to the compass’s functionality.

The earliest attempts to create a compass were inserting a magnetic needle into a piece of straw so that it would float on water. This was feasible in steady conditions on land but impractical on a ship. The last step was to balance the metal pointer on a pivot and position a wind rose beneath it, with the north arrow aligned with the northern stars. This began to make sense for practical navigation, but it still required one more improvement: a binnacle to shield the needle from wind disruption.

A candle was added to the binnacle to increase its visibility at night. Gimbals were eventually used to maintain the compass level during ship pitching and rolling. All of this evolution occurred relatively short, and the resulting compass was remarkably similar to those used on ships of more recent vintage. When iron ships first debuted, compensating magnets were installed outside the binnacle to preserve north orientation.

The earliest recorded building of a compass for navigation in Europe took place in the Italian city-state of Amalfi, located south of Naples. In 1300 A.D., while Amalfi had no substantial port now, it was the most important port in Italy. A monument in the city honors the city’s claim to fame as the birthplace of the navigation compass.

The actual effect of the compass on navigation in the Mediterranean region was that ships could begin sailing throughout the year. By the end of the thirteenth century, the compass was widely utilized throughout the Mediterranean, and the practice of wintering ships ceased. Winter cloudiness was no longer an issue for the compass, and ships could conduct at least two voyages annually between Venice or Genoa and Egypt and other ports in the Levant.

Then, expeditions focused more on the Atlantic Ocean’s wide seas in the fifteenth century. The final decade of the fifteenth century was distinguished by a sudden desire to find maritime routes to the Orient. The Portuguese began cautiously navigating their way down the African coast, facing the unknown until they reached the Cape of Good Hope and entered the Indian Ocean. Vasco de Gama was the first to accomplish this and establish a maritime route to India in 1497.

Before 1500, Columbus made three of his four expeditions to the New World around the same time frame. In 1497, John Cabot traveled from England to Newfoundland. Following these pioneers, it seemed inevitable that one of them would circumnavigate the globe. In 1519, Ferdinand Magellan was the first to round the globe, but others soon followed. No one was convinced that the quickest path to the Orient had been discovered. The notion that a tunnel must exist somewhere kept exploration active long into the nineteenth century.

In all of these new endeavor, the compass played a crucial part. No one was deterred by the notion that all these excursions were in unexplored territory. The compass provided them the courage to venture into such vast regions without a map or a guidebook. They understood that with the compass, they could keep track of their whereabouts and eventually return to port.

The pointed compass west of the north stars was a new problem for Atlantic-crossing sailors. This fluctuation was not a concern in Europe, where the magnetic deviation (variation from true north) is little. Still, as they journeyed westward, the compass increasingly pointed west of the stars. This unsettling and inexplicable occurrence prompted first concerns about the compass’s dependability. Before anyone realized that the north magnetic pole was not in the same place as the geographic north pole. In reality, they had no grasp of the magnetism of the Earth. The navigators adjusted for this peculiar behavior by sometimes noting the difference between the compass direction and the direction of the north star and altering their headings appropriately.

Even though celestial navigation was well understood by the 15th century, most seafarers navigating the vast seas depended mainly on dead reckoning and the compass. For dead reckoning, a sand glass was necessary to estimate the time elapsed on a certain path. A mariner might calculate the distance traveled by multiplying time by their anticipated speed. A change in direction necessitated a new distance estimation, meticulously noted on a map-in-progress. The result was maps of every continent and a vast accumulation of knowledge about the planet.

Although the magnetic compass was invented in China, its revolutionary application to exploration began in Italy. European seafarers’ discovery of the New World is a well-known consequence.

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