The magnetic compass

When people think of instruments that help with direction finding, the first one that springs to mind is probably the magnetic compass. It is the oldest instrument for navigation and has been a vital tool for navigators at sea for centuries. The compass allows ships to steer a selected course. By taking bearings of visible objects with a compass, the navigator is also able to fix a ship’s position on a chart.

The magnetic compass is an old Chinese invention, probably first made in China during the Qin dynasty (221-206 B.C.). Chinese fortune tellers used lodestones (a mineral composed of an iron oxide which aligns itself in a north-south direction) to construct their fortune telling boards.  Eventually someone noticed that the lodestones were better at pointing out real directions, leading to the first compasses. They designed the compass on a square slab which had markings for the cardinal points and the constellations. The pointing needle was a lodestone spoon-shaped device, with a handle that would always point south.


Magnetized needles used as direction pointers instead of the spoon-shaped lodestones appeared in the 8th century AD, again in China, and between 850 and 1050 they seem to have become common as navigational devices on ships.   By the 10th century, the idea had been brought to Europe by Arab traders. Magnetic compasses of a very simple kind were certainly in use in the Mediterranean as early as the 12th century. However, early compasses were not very reliable. Although the magnetic compass was in general use in the Middle Ages, little was known about precisely how it worked.

A great improvement came when the needle was mounted under a card on a sharp pin, and placed in a little turned wooden or ivory box.  At first, compass cards were marked out not in degrees, but in points. There were 32 points, matching the directions of winds which sailors would be familiar with at sea. The four main points – North, South, East and West – are called the cardinal points.

Old compass cards are very ornamental, often covered with decoration and painted figures. All cards have the North point decorated with what is often called a fleur de lys, like the old royal symbol of France. In fact, the sign comes from a very decorated ‘T’ for Tramontana, the Latin word for the North wind.

To stop the needle and card from swinging wildly on board ship, even early compasses were gimbal mounted in a square box by an attachment with swivelling rings. This means that the compass is hung in a way that makes it unaffected by the movement of the ship on the sea. The remains of one such compass, housed in a special stand called a binnacle, was found in the wreck of King Henry VIII’s flagship, the Mary Rose, which sank in 1546. At that time, the compass would have been lit at night by a candle.

As long ago as the 15th century, mariners noticed that the needle of a magnetic compass does not point accurately to Earth’s true north. Columbus, for instance was aware of this on his voyages across the Atlantic in the 1490s. Instead, the needle makes an angle with true north, and that angle varies from place to place on the Earth’s surface. This means that there is a different magnetic variation for different places on Earth. These variations were investigated on a famous 17th century voyage by the great scientist and astronomer Edmond Halley. It was thought at this time that the longitude of a ship could be found by the compass variation, but this proved to be untrue.

By the 19th century, the ships compass had become the familiar large, gimbal mounted instrument, enclosed in a binnacle with its own light.

The magnetic field of the iron body of today’s ship itself affects the reading on the compass.  When iron and steel ships became common, many scientists studied the problem. One of the earliest was the Astronomer Royal, Sir G.B. Airy, who in 1838 used the iron steamer Rainbow for his experiments. Airy thought of a method of neutralizing a ship’s magnetism by placing magnets and pieces of unmagnetized iron near the compass.

Another problem was solved by a Scottish scientist of the 19th century, Sir William Thomson, who later became Lord Kelvin. He introduced a compass design with the needle system slung on fine silk threads through a very light skeleton card. The card was made of fine rice paper so that there was very little friction on the pivot. Jewels, such as agate and ruby, were used to reduce friction on the pivot itself.

It was also realised that compass movement could be dampened by filling the bowl with liquid. Alcohol is ideal for this since it only freezes at a very low temperature. Liquid compasses, because of their greater steadiness, are used in most ships, especially small boats and lifecraft.

Variations do not worry navigators now because of the introduction of the gyroscopic compass. It was invented in 1908. This uses a spinning gyroscope which keeps the compass pointing not to the magnetic north, but to Earth’s true North. A rapidly spinning gyroscope is at the heart of the gyrocompass. Once the gyroscope is set spinning, it remains pointing in the same direction, regardless of the ship’s heaving motion.

Today, a ship anywhere in the world can check its exact position by means of a signal from a satellite in orbit. However, all navigators still have a compass on board as well. Tracy Edwards, who captained the yacht Maiden in the 1989–90 Whitbread Round-the-World Yacht Race, used Navsat (satellite navigation) and found it had so many technical problems that she often used a magnetic compass instead.



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