1 - History
2 - Bibliography


We have intentionally decided not to call this part the invention of the compass. The compass was not designed by a lone genius. As a matter of fact, several important steps had to be taken before a fully functional instrument existed. We thus decided to quote the short, but excellent introduction published 100 years ago in a German book (Der Kompass, by A. Schück, 1911, see Bibliography below). Schück quoted a Swedish author, whose ideas he completed. He apparently possessed an English translation of the original, which we hope to find some day (this is our own translation of the German wording):
(Quotation start)
One cannot say that the compass was invented one day. One should rather speak of the discovery of a natural force and of the application of its effects, which led to the making of some predecessor of the compass. A. E. Nordenskiöld formulated this clearly in his book Periplus (translated into English by Francis A. Bather, Stockholm, 1897) VI. Portolano's, page 47 and foll.:

"One must distinguish four steps:
1) The discovery of an ore with electro-magnetic capacities i.e. that can attract iron. Only one exists in large quantities on the Earth's surface, and that is magnetite.
2) The discovery of the fact that steel or hardened iron can be magnetised when rubbed against a magnetite crystal.
3) The discovery of the fact that the magnet, i.e. magnetised iron, as soon as it is hung or placed onto a pivot so that it can rotate freely, will always point to the same direction, or more precisely will align itself within a certain angle of a north-south axis.
4) Realising that this magnetised needle can be used as a means of orientation".
(Quotation end).


Picture at left: Magnetite ore (Click on the image for an enlarged view).

This is the stone with which it all began. As in the Bible, one could say "in the beginning was the magnetite… ". It is a black mineral, also called magnetic iron ore, which forms cubic crystals.Its chemical formula is Fe3O4. Its ability to magnetize a metal needle and make it feel the Earth's magnetism made it possible to discover the world beyond the ocean's horizon. In reality, the compass needle doesn't "point North" but aligns itself along the lines of the magnetic forces between the Earth's poles. For several centuries, the only possibility to magnetize a needle was to rub it with a big magnetite crystal. Since they were part of the invaluable instruments set on board, they were set in a non ferrous frame (picture at right: XIX Century silver magnet case, Musée de la Marine, Paris)
The mineral and the phenomenon of magnetism were known in Western and Eastern antique civilizations.
- Plinius the Elder (23-70 A.D.) wrote that Nicander of Colophon reported  that a shepherd called Magnes had noted (in very ancient times) that the nails of his shoes and the iron ferrule of his staff clung to the rocks on Mount Ida (...magnes appellatus est ab inventore, ut auctor est Nicander in Ida repertus invenisse autem fertur clavis crepidarum, baculi cuspide haerentibus, cum armenta pasceret). Lucrecia (98-55 B.C.) wrote that this ore was found near a city called Magnesia, so it is not clear where the designation really comes from: maybe the city was named after the ore's name. See also Thales of Milet's theory below.
- Another legend is also known in the Mediterranean and in the Arabic world, that states that the iron nails of ships sailing too near of a certain island were pulled out the boards...

It is now generally admitted that the compass is a Chinese invention or discovery. Extensive research work was conducted by missionaries in China and by western sinologists, and in particular the German linguist who lived in Paris, Julius H. Klaproth, who laid down the result of his studies one year before his death in a booklet entitled Lettre à M. le baron A. de Humboldt sur l'invention de la boussole (Letter to Baron A. de Humboldt, on the invention of the mariner's compass, 1834).
Pseudo-historical vision of the great discoveries (image in a coffee box): "1490. The compass was just discovered.."  

The description of space always was very important in the Chinese philosophy because some directions have a positive or negative value (yang/yin or dragon/phoenix opposition). For the ancient Chinese, the magnetic needle pointed South, the direction towards which the emperor (seated with his back turned to the North star) was looking. This physical propriety was used very early to help in orienteering oneself when natural directing helps like stars or planets where invisible under a cloudy sky. Originally, two different instruments existed in China, at least since the 2nd Century. One was a sort of square plate with a spoon made of magnetite (picture: go to WIKIPEDIA / compass - see also compass category Religion / Chinese Tradition and Feng Shui). It was essentially used for fortune telling (geomancy, Feng Shui).

Many authors have considered that a system called South pointing chariot (zhi3 nan2 che1) was functioning with a magnetic compass. It is described in Wikipedia (South pointing Chariot) as a purely mechanical device without any magnetical component. However, it is highly probable that it worked exactly like the spoon, with the thin part concealed in the sleeve and the heavy end in the body on the opposite side of the pivot.
Drawings: south pointing carts - Reproductions by Klaproth from the Chinese encyclopedia San thsaï thou hoei dated 1609 (at left) and in the great Japanese encycl. (at r.  - Click on the drawings for an enlarged view).
See also compass category Religion / Chinese Tradition and Feng Shui.

Another almost comprehensive reference book citing all known sources in the Western and Eastern literature was written by another German author (a captain with the imperial commercial Navy called A. Schück, Der Kompass) immediately before the first World War. This fact may be the reason why these two works are very little known outside Germany.  Some of the following ideas were inspired by these books.  The three volumes of this work also display hundreds of compass roses from all over the world, starting with the oldest ones known through to the most modern systems and designs - i.e. when the book was printed... (see Nautical / Chetwynd).

The first known use of a magnetized needle occurred approximately at the end of the 1st millennium A.D. It was laid down on a swimming device made of wood or bamboo placed in a bowl of water.  This rudimentary technology was then passed over to the only other seafaring people with whom some sort of commercial contacts existed, the Arabs.  This chronology cannot be proven though since there are no written testimonies.
It is often said that the word used in the Mediterranean to designate the compass (bussola) comes from the italian bussolo (a box made of "box wood" but it could also have been copied from the Arabic word el-mouasaléh (sharp point, sting), the transformation of M into B being common in several arabic dialects (Klaproth, p. 29) and in our western languages (Giacomo, Jacob etc.). The designation al-konbas (from the Italian il compasso) appeared much later, after this simple instrument had been technologically improved (see below).  Not everybody agrees with this linguistic and historical translation. It has been substantiated by Klaproth, but the fact that he was German and demonstrated that the invention was not the product of the superior Western civilization could explain why this theory was not taken seriously, at least in France. 
It seemed that the Arabs just translated the Chinese device, but didn't actually do lot with it.  They might have considered it as a simple gadget that could not compete with their highly precise and well developed methods for navigating, which were based on their excellent astronomical knowledge and mathematical skills.  They apparently weren’t aware of the improved compass when the Portuguese seafarers reached that part of the world since the latter reported that the Arabs used a sort of concave fish-shaped needle able to swim, and that it was magnetized on demand
But the exact contrary is true: it has been demonstrated (read Two early Arabic sources on the magnetic compass) that the Arabs already used a sophisticated technique at latest in the 13th century to find the direction of Mecca (see qibla).
 Picture at r.: Il Millione or The Travels of Marco Polo (1307), Bibl. Nat. Paris
Starting from the bare mineral crystal, the different steps consisted first in carving it so that it could work as a pointer (that was the Chinese "spoon").  The next step was to use it in order to magnetize a metallic needle and to design a system that allowed it to move freely e.g. floating on a piece of bamboo (approx. 8th C. in China).  The system used then consisted of a magnetic element (stone or metallic rod?) placed in a piese of reed or on a slice of cork. It was called calamite (from the Greek kalamos = reed) in the languages around the Mediterranean.  The name still exists in the Latin designation of the natterjack toad (see WIKIPEDIA, bufo calamita = "reed frog"). Another name in French was marinette (see Guyot's poem) and this is very logical if one considers that this device was the mariners' best "girlfriend"!
The mariner's compass, as we know it today, is the result of major technological improvements that occurred in the late 13th or the early 14th C.  Some gifted compass makers first had the idea of placing the needle on a pivot and then to stick a disk of paper on which a drawing of the main wind directions was painted.  Most authors have attributed these achievements to a single genius called Flavio di Gioia (see next para.).

The Legend of Flavio di Gioia

For at least two centuries, several authors (one of them being a legate of the Pope called Flavius Blondus), described the compass, but also wrote that either the inventor of the system was not known or that it was designed by a mariner called Gioia who lived in Amalfi.  In the late 16th C. the historian Scipio Mazzella, of the city of Naples, suddenly wrote that the compass was invented exactly in 1302 (!) by Flavio di Gioia (in Descrittione del regno di Napoli, Napoli 1588, 2nd Issue, 1601, p. 65).  Since then, almost all authors (except serious researchers like Bertelli who proved that a missing comma in a latin text led to a misinterpretation - see The Riddle of the Compass below) have repeated this, and one can read it everywhere.  Unfortunately there is no evidence and this is only a legend. Fact is that the sailors of Naples in those days had special ties with the Arabic world and were the only ones allowed by them to sail and deal on the eastern Mediterranean and North African coasts.
NOTE: W. Gilbert wrote (De Magnete, London, 1600) "In the kingdom of Naples, a scientist living in Amalfi and called Johannes Goia is said to have shown in 1300 how to use a compass, as Flavius Blondus reports."  
Another author, Guillaume de Nautonnier wrote (in La mécométrie, Toulouse T. 1, 1603, p. 8) " This instrument, the use of which was no longer known, was re-invented by a citizen of Amalfi called Gioia as this is reported by Flavius."

The Rose of the Winds

Before the compass rose was divided into 360 degrees, several systems were used to represent the horizon's full circle.  The Chinese chose different numbers of signs, the Arabs chose stars and constellations and the Christians the main winds blowing in the Mediterranean (see Cardinals and Religion).  Whoever had the idea to glue a picture of the winds on a magnetic needle made it very easy for a sailor to follow a determined direction.  This part of the invention is generally attributed to the above mentioned Flavio di Gioia.  This device made it possible to navigate by merely turning the ship's bow in the direction of a certain wind (rumb) indicated on the compass rose. For more details read the excellent study written by L. de Saussure (bibliography below).

(Parts of the following text were copied and adapted from The Medieval Technology Pages by Paul J. Gans).
"There seems to be a reference to a south-pointing spoon* in a manuscript of the Han dynasty written in 83 AD. Another reference of the same period states that the jade collectors of Cheng carried a "south pointer" with them so that they would not lose their way [Gies, p. 94 - s. Sources below].

Magnetized needles used as direction pointers are attested in the 8th century AD in China, and between 850 and 1050 they seem to have become common as navigational devices on ships. [Gies, p. 94]

Arc Frode - Icelandic writer cited in Adm. Preble's essay The Mariner's Compass (see Bibliography below).

Lynn White dates such use a bit later, citing dates of 1089-93 and 1116 for mention of magnetized needles being used for geomancy and 1119 and 1122 for use as a mariner's compass. [White, p. 132]

The first mention of the directional compass (as opposed to magnets themselves) in the Western world occurs in a long satirical poem (2700 verses called the Bible de Guyot - see Pict. at right - Source: Gallica) written in the 1180s by the French poet Hugue de Bercy (also called Guyot de Provins, Guyot being a diminutive form of Hugue, other known names: Hugo Bertius, Hugue de Berzel etc.). He made therein the first known precise description of the mariner's compass (see English translation in Adm. Preble's essay The Mariner's Compass). He was a monk in Clervaux and Cluny and travelled a lot. He reproached the Pope that he was behaving for the Christians like the compass for the sailors (see details and excerpt below).

The next older mention is to be found in Alexander Neckam's De naturis rerum (On the Natures of Things) probably written in Paris in 1190 [Gies, p. 157]. He also was a Man of God and lived in Paris for some time. We can thus assume that Neckham knew Bercy's/Guyot's famous pope critical book (see above). His book written in Latin was more widely known than Guyot's old French poem.

The first mention of the compass in the Muslim civilization occurs later in a Persian story of 1232-3. The first Arabic mention appears in 1242. White notes that the Arabic word for compass is al-konbas (from the Italian il compasso) a further indication of transmission from the West [White, p. 132].

Left: Print in a German book (also published in Dutch in 1745) "Der Kompassmacher" (the compass maker)

One must consider two aspects here which are not sustained by any evidence except the few words of Arc Frode but cannot be neglected because of the simple logic of the facts.  It can be assumed that the instrument had already been known by seafarers for a long time and that its existence was also known to many people, otherwise the comparison would not have been understood by the readers of the story.  An additional aspect is the fact that the few who possessed such an instrument would have most probably kept it secret as long as possible as they derived a commercial advantage with the higher speed of delivery, since they would no longer be sailing along the coast but straight to their destination harbours across the open sea.
It is noted that Neckham's book was widely read by the end of the century, and that the historian of the crusades, Jacques de Vitry, considered in 1218 the compass as a necessity for maritime navigation (Historiæ Hierosolimitanæ, cap. 89).  By 1225 it was in use in Iceland [White, p. 132]. It is thus reasonable to assume that the actual date of the introduction of the compass to Europe predates Guyot's (and thus Neckham's) mention of it by a number of years and the general knowledge about it was only made spread in the wake of the crusades.  

 Milestones on the way of compass development in the Western world

- 6th C. B.C.: the Greek philosopher Thales of Milet thought that magnetite had a soul that attracted parent stones like iron.
- 11th C. A.D.: the Icelandic historian Arc Frode (1068-1148) wrote in his work Landnamabok (description of the settlement of Iceland) that Nordic seamen didn't have in those days (around 868 A.D.) the device used in the Mediterranean called leiderstein, i.e. "leading stone" (or lodestone) (read the full text quoted in Rear Adm. Preble's essay The Mariner's Compass, see Bibliography below).
- 1181: Hugue de Bercy/Guyot de Provins (and A. Neckham shortly after him) wrote that the mariners used a metallic needle, which they "lightened up" by rubbing it against a stone), read more in TESLA Universe and original text in Klaproth's Letter to A. von Humboldt (s. bibliography below).
- 1269: Pierre Pèlerin de Méricourt wrote (original words in Latin): " [the compass] is the instrument that guides you to cities and islands. "
- 1302/1303 (?): Invention of the pivot or of the rotating rose of winds (see above, Legend of Flavio di Gioia).
- 1492: Columbus noted a discrepancy between the direction given by the North star (geographical North pole) and the magnetic North pole indicated by his compass (declination) while he sailed about 200 miles west of the island called El Hierro (Canary).
- 16th century: a German priest called Georg Hartmann, living in Nuremberg, studied the phenomenon of the declination and had the intuition of  inclination.  First measurements of the declination were made in 1541 in Paris and in 1580 in London.
- 1576: the British manufacturer of nautical instruments, Robert Normann, described the phenomenon of inclination.
- 17th Century: a Portuguese priest called Burrus (Lisboa) transferred, onto a spherical map of the Earth, the declination values measured at different places, and joined them with lines which we now call isogonic.  The British astronomer Halley (1656-1742) improved them in 1700 during an expedition intended to measure the exact position of the Empire's colonies.


 (See also Compass / Teaching Means)

The Chinese were the first to use the compass but European scientist were the first to study magnetism (see the next three books):

The newe Attractive (1581) by Robert Norman who studied the inclination.

De Magnete, Magneticisque Corporibus, et de Magno Magnete Tellure (On the Magnet and Magnetic Bodies, and on That Great Magnet the Earth) by William Gilbert (Guiliemi Gilberti), physician at the court of Elizabeth in 1600 who understood that the Earth is a Magnet. English translation online available on the GUTENBERG PROJECT's website.

- Magnes, ars magnetica (1631) by Athanasius Kircher

Other important studies

- Lettre à M. le Baron A. de Humboldt by Julius H. Klaproth (1834), a German linguist (sinologist) who studied and quoted many ancient French, Arabic and Chinese sources (see image at right, original French text online - see note below). An English translation of the first pages is also available online in The American Journal of Science and Art, vol. 40, p. 242). See also this other abstract. This study written in French by a German scientist for another German scientist was translated into German only fifty years later by Arnim Wittstein in 1885 (pdf copy available).

NOTE: However, Google Books didn't scan the oversized pictures. We would gladly send you photos of them if you kindly consider making a small donation.

- The rose of the winds: the origin and development of the compass card by Silvanus P. Thomson (Proceedings of the British Academy, London 1913, 31 p. and 6 colour pl.).

- L'origine de la rose des vents et l'invention de la boussole by Leopold de Saussure (Navy Officer rtd.) : critical review and complement to J. Klaproth's letter to A. v. Humboldt (Geneva 1923, 64 p., French). The author demonstrates among other errors made by prededent authors that the name calamita used to designate the needle on floats doesn't come from reed frog (bufo calamita) but from the greek kalamos = reed.

La Boussole (1885 - image at left) describing all aspects of the compass manufacture and history including metallurgy, among other things (the author's name -probably an alias- is indicated as Mme de C***). A very good but also very "special" i.e. anti-religious, French teaching book from the period of history when government was fighting the overwhelming influence of the Catholic church in France.

- Compass (2004) by Alan Gurney. Maybe the best contemporary description of the development of ships' compasses.

- Basic Essentials of Map & Compass by Cliff Jacobson (see also SILVA / Be an expert with Map & Compass by B. Kjellström)

A. Schück was a German officer with the marchant navy. He published three books about the compass. The first one, Alte Schiffskompasse und Kompassteile im Besitz Hamburger Staatsanstalten (1910) is a description of antique compasses kept in the collections of Hamburg's official institutions. Small-sized soft-cover booklet comprising 47 text pages and 11 loose illustration plates (5 partly col.).

- Der Kompass by A. Schück's (above) main work (2 vol., 1911 & 1915, see image at right) is a comprehensive encyclopædia of the complete knowledge about compass history and technology. Schück quoted probably all known sources. It contains hundreds of pictures of compass cards from the very early ones kept in Museums through to the most modern designs of his time (e.g. Chetwynd and even the newly invented Bézard marching compass). Unfortunately, it was published just before and during WWI and was not known outside Germany — just like von Lippmann's study below but for other reasons...

Note: A reprint is available but unfortunately due to the low-resolution scan and down-sized printing (click on link for a compared view of a plate) most details are not clearly visible. Moreover, the plates were binded in the wrong order in vol. 2.

- Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel subtitled "Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages" by Frances and Joseph Gies, 1995, HarperPerennial, ISBN 0-06-016590-1.

- Medieval Technology and Social Change by Lynn White, Jr., Oxford, 1962 (paper), ISBN 0-19-500266-0.

United Kingdom - Official British Army's manuals with descriptions of Marching Compasses

-  Military Sketching, Map Reading and Reconnaissance (1911). Compass types: various J. Steward's models
-  Manual of Map Reading, Photo Reading and Field Sketching
(1929 / 1939 / 1948), compass type: Verner's Service Pattern Mk VIII
-  Manual of Map Reading, Air Photo Reading and Field Sketching War Office code 8868 (1955). Compass type: Mark III
 Click on the pics at right for views of the compasses dealt with  

Compass type VERNER's Pattern Mark VII & VIII
- Some Notes on Military Topography by Capt. William Willoughby Cole Verner, Rifle Brigade, W.H. Allen & Co. Ltd, London and Calcutta, 1891, 127 p. (s. pic at left)
- Short & Mason / Tycos - User instruction (see our SHOP)
- Map Reading in a Nutshell, The Prismatic Compass, question 117 p. 60
- Map and Compass Reading by WO 1 A.H. Dickson, Army Educational Corps, 1943, Chapter 5 - The Compass and Direction, p. 62
- The Magnetic Compass and How to Use It (Gale & Polden Ltd, 1945, 16 p.)
- The Map & Compass ... "A practical modern guide to map reading and the day and night use of modern compasses" by Captain J. Noel. Also included: descr. of the Liquid Lensatic Compass, 114 p. 1940 (?)

- Geschichte der Magnetnadel bis zur Erfindung des Kompasses by Edmund Oskar von Lippmann, 1932, 49 p. (an history of the magnetic needle until ca.1300). The author tries to prove that the compass was very probably invented by the Norsemen around the turn of the 10th century and brought by them to the eastern Mediterranean area (conclusions: click here) to demonstrate the superiority of the "Nordic Race". This essay remained totally unknown because it was published in Germany just before Adolf Hitler took over power. The author didn't quote the respective studies published shortly before him by L. de Saussure (1923) and S. P. Thomson (1913).

The Riddle of the Compass (2001) by Amir D. ACZEL: Probably the best written and documented description of the compass' early development. Almost perfect, were it not for the the fact that A. Neckham is presented as the first one to describe the instrument whereas he copied Guyot de Provins' famous words when he was studying in Paris. We hope that some courageous gentleman will admit this fact some day and rectify this other legend like many have tempted to shed light on the Legend of Flavio di Gioia, but it was written and re-written so many times, that it will be a very difficult enterprise.

About the early days of AERONAUTICS (UK, FR, GER, click on titles below for a picture of the cover):
Aeroplane Instruments, Airboard Techn. Dept. Aug. 1917, 15 p. (see pic. at right)
- The Magnetic Compass in Aircraft  - 'Remarks on compasses in aircraft' by F. Creagh-Osborne, 1915, 35 p.
- The Magnetic Compass in Aircraft - Air Publication 802, London Nov. 1920, 23 p.
- The Magnetic Compass on Land (for armoured vehicles) by Cptn Creagh-Osborne, 1915, 15 p.
- Notes on Aero-compasses and their adjustment - Air Publ. 157, London 1918
- Aircraft Mechanics Handbook: A Collection of Facts and Suggestions from Factory and Flying Field to Assist in Caring for Modern Aircraft, by Fred Herbert Colvin, 1918, (note: only 2 p. about compasses in Section XXIII - Instruments for Airplanes)
- The Aircraft Engineers' Hanbook by R. W. Sloley (and other authors depending on edition), 1934 to 1953 - No. 4 Instruments - Compasses (no. of chapter varies)
- Instruments for Aerial Navigation by Alex. J. Hughes, ed. 1923 and 1928 (?)
- The History of Air Navigation by Alex. J. Hughes. 1946, Chapter VI - Compasses
- NACA Report no. 128 - Aeronautic Instruments - Section IV - Direction Instruments - Part II - The testing and Use of Magnetic Compasses for Airplanes by R. L. Sanford, 1923, 33 p.
- NACA Report no. 476 - Synopsis of French Aeronautical Equipment - Compasses made by Vion and Morel-Krauss in 1927 (http://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc65319/m1/22/)
- Raising the Aero-Compass in Early Twentieth-Century Britain by Sophia Davis, 22. p. in Brit. Journal for the History of Science, 2006. A perfect research work about the difficult acceptance of the aerocompass by some pilots (online: Academia.edu).
- Most Probable Position - A History of Aerial Navigation to 1941 by M. D. Wright, 1946

(For French and German books: go to the relevant language versions of this museum for exhaustive updated lists)
- SUR L'AIMANT - Volume published in the series La science populaire de CLAUDIUS (pseudonym of Charles-Claude Ruelle, 1840, 116 p., French, 3 x 4 ½ in). Lesson about the proprieties of the magnet. The chapter about the history of the compass is a short version of the letter to A. von Humboldt (see above).
- La boussole magnétique pour la navigation aérienne, F. Creagh-Osborne, 1916, 52 p.
- Cours élémentaire de compensation et d'emploi by Capitaine Robert Gaujour, 1936
- Der Flugzeugkompass und seine Handhabung by Kapitän Fritz Gansberg, ed. 1 (1915) and 2 (1917), Krayn, Berlin W., 56 resp. 64 p.
Der Kompass an Bord (Deutsche See, warte1906) comprises all necessary mathematical fomulæ for the installation of compasses on board of metallic ships but also a precise description of the compass types utilised in those years, i.e. W. Thomson's (Lord Kelvin) system, Hechelmann's improved version of Thomson's rose and Bamberg's fluid-dampened compass.
- Italian: La bussole magnetica nell'aviazione Ernesto La POLLA, 1918.

About the development of SHIP COMPASSES

- Steady as She Goes (1986) by A. E. FANNING: The History of the Compass Department of the British Admiralty.
- The Mariner's Compass (1880): an essay by Rear Admiral G. H. Preble in which the existence of some form of compass in the Mediterranean as early as around the 10th century as reported by the Icelandic historian Arc Frode, is very well explained. It contains moreover TWO translations of Guyot's description of the medieval compass dated 1200 (published in The United Service, Monthly Review of Military and Naval Affairs, Vol. III, 15 p., photocopy available - ask the Museum's Curator).
HISTOIRE de la BOUSSOLE (Pierre JUHEL, éd. Quæ, 2013, French)
The history of the great discoveries and the compasses used and of the development of compasses that could work in iron ships.


- The Golden Compass

First novel in the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullmann (1995) in which a fictive instrument called alethiometer, i.e. "truth teller" (from the Greek αλήθεια / aletheia = truth and μέτρο / metro = measure) is the corner stone (see description in Wikipedia). The idea of this instrument was maybe inspired by the esoteric compass used for Feng-Shui. It is an extraordinarily intricate device able to answer any question formed in the mind of the user.  Created long ago by a metaphysical scientist, the truth-telling, future-seeing machine points not to true North like an ordinary compass, but to Truth itself.  The alethiometer's face is ornamented with 36 arcane symbols, each of which may convey different meanings in combination with any of the others and according to the subtleties of the machine's motions. There's no-one left in the world that possesses the ability to use it, except for the story's young heroine, Lyra (source: ign.com).
She is a free-thinker (i.e. atheist) fighting against the Church (link to speech of a children-friendly witch in Book II, The Subtle Knife, p. 50).  When one reads these lines, it is understandable that the Catholic Church did all it could to prevent the making of movies based on the second and third books!
There exist replicas of the instrument shown in the movie but also a strange electronic game featuring a square display!

- Five Go Down To The Sea (by Enid Blyton, 1953)
An adventure of the Five Friends in which a pocket compass plays an eminent role!

- Der verschwundene Schiffskompass (The stolen ship's compass by Günter Görlich, GDR 1968, probably no translation available)
Deetctive novel for teenies : a boy and a girl try to find a ship's compass which was stolen by a burglar from their grandma's house in Berlin. It belonged once to a famous ship on which in Kiel in Nov. 1918 the German Revolution began when the sailors mutinied and thus put an end to monarchy.
- Pirates of the Caribean
Captain JACK SPARROW's compass special function is very probably based on the Walt Disney story below (see pictures HERE):

- The Great Khan's compass
An adventure of Mickey and Goofy created who discover an instrument ressembling a pocket compass and which empowers its owner to be instantly "beamed" to any wished place and time. The original story was first published in 1968 in Italy. Its title was Topolino e la bussola del Khan (Mickey mouse's Italian name is Topolino). We only know of a German translation.

Picture at right: Goofy and Mickey holding the compass (cover of the German version)
The cover of the new issue displays a hunter-type compass with a lid, contrary to the original issue.

- La boussole d'ivoire (Link to pic of p. 1 / The ivory compass)
French short story in pictures published in the series Les histoires en images (no. 185 dated 18.9.1924, 4 p., 19 x 29.5 cm) about the salvage of a young sailor after his ship was crushed by an iceberg and he was stranded on Labrador's coast thanks to his father's small compass (copy: 10 €, see our SHOP).

See also the short stories on the cereals boxes (among other breakfast foodstuff) which were ads for a finger ring with a compass.

- La boussole merveilleuse (the wondrous compass by Olivier de Traynel, pseudo of Jean de Neltray, Boivin & Cie Ed., around 1920-1930)
French adventure roman in which a metal detector called compass (!) plays the main part: the instrument rings a bell when near of gold and the needle shows where the treasure is buried.