What Is The Origin Of The Compass & Its History?

What the origins of the compass are & its history. The modern compass, as used by sailors and pilots to navigate, has its roots in China in the 4th Century BC.

The compass, so glossed over in the list of important inventions, can be considered to have revolutionised the task of early seafarers, expediting the discovery of other continents.

Prior to the introduction of this device, sailors relied solely on the sun for navigation, a task that often caused extensive delays in overcast weather.

Interestingly, there appears to have been a delay of nearly 1400-years between the first recorded instance of a compass being used to indicate direction and the device being used by sailors for navigation.



The reason for this is that the compass was first used in China in the 4th Century BC in feng shui, the Taoist method of environment organisation.

The first compass was a rudimentary device, a simple piece of lodestone floating on water that pointed south. Following on from this, flat pieces of iron were used instead which, when polarised by lodestone - a naturally occuring magnetic ore - indicated a north-south direction.

This was then replaced with a needle by the 6th Century AD. Reports of chinese sailors using this early compass surfaced around the 12th Century, detailed in Zhu Yu's "P'ingchow Table Talk".

The first recorded instance of the compass being used in Europe occured around 1190. This was similar to the early chinese lodestone model, but

by the end of the 13th century, the English had mounted a needle on a pin, the basis of the compass as understood today.

Little was understood about the device and the superstitions of the time meant that some captains even believed that if their crew ate onions this would impact upon the magnetism.

By the 17th century, the needle was changed to become a parralelogram shape which was easier to mount upon the pin. In 1745 an englishman, Gowin Knight, developed the Knight compass, an improvement in that the steel needle would retain its magnetization for longer periods of time.

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