We have intentionally
decided not to call this part the
invention of the compass.
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
book (Der Kompass,
by A. Schück,
1911, see Bibliography
quoted a Swedish author,
whose ideas he completed. He apparently possessed an English
translation of the original, which we
find some day (this is our own translation of the German wording):
One cannot say that the compass was invented one day. One should rather
speak of the discovery of a natural
of the application of its effects, which led to the making of
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
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
it is hung or placed onto a pivot so that it can rotate freely, will
point to the same direction, or more precisely will align itself within
angle of a north-south axis.
4) Realising that this magnetised needle can be used as a means
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
"in the beginning was the
It is a black mineral, also called magnetic iron ore, which forms cubic
chemical formula is
Fe3O4. Its ability to magnetize
a metal needle and
make it feel the
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
Earth's poles. For several centuries, the only possibility to magnetize
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
silver magnet case, Musée de la Marine, Paris)
The mineral and the
phenomenon of magnetism were known in Western and Eastern
- Plinius the Elder (23-70 A.D.) wrote that Nicander of Colophon
that a shepherd called Magnes
noted (in very ancient
times) that the nails of his shoes and the iron ferrule of his staff
the rocks on Mount Ida (...magnes
appellatus est ab inventore,
ut auctor est
Nicander in Ida repertus invenisse autem fertur clavis crepidarum,
cuspide haerentibus, cum armenta pasceret
B.C.) wrote that this ore was
found near a city
called Magnesia, so it is not clear where the designation really comes
maybe the city was named after the ore's name. See also Thales of
- Another legend is also known in the Mediterranean and in the Arabic
that states that the iron nails of ships sailing too near of a certain
were pulled out the boards...
It is now generally admitted that the compass is
a Chinese invention
or discovery. Extensive
was conducted by missionaries in China and by western sinologists, and
particular the German linguist who lived in Paris, Julius H.
laid down the result of his studies one year before his death in
à M. le baron A. de
Humboldt sur l'invention de la
Baron A. de Humboldt, on the
invention of the
mariner's compass, 1834).
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
philosophy because some directions have a positive or negative value
or dragon/phoenix opposition). For the ancient Chinese, the magnetic
pointed South, the direction towards which the emperor (seated with his
turned to the North star) was looking. This physical propriety was used
very early to help in
oneself when natural directing helps like stars or planets where
under a cloudy sky. Originally,
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
- see also compass
/ Chinese Tradition and Feng Shui
It was essentially used
telling (geomancy, Feng Shui).
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)
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.
south pointing carts - Reproductions
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).
compass category Religion
Chinese Tradition and Feng Shui
comprehensive reference book citing all known sources in the Western
Eastern literature was written by another German author (a captain with
imperial commercial Navy called A. Schück, Der
before the first World War. This fact may be the reason why these two
very little known outside Germany.
of the following ideas were inspired by these books.
The three volumes of
this work also display
compass roses from all over the world, starting with the oldest ones
through to the most modern systems and designs - i.e. when the book was
printed... (see Nautical
The first known use
of a magnetized needle occurred approximately at the end of
millennium A.D. It was laid down on a swimming device made of wood or
placed in a bowl of water.
rudimentary technology was then passed over to the only other seafaring
with whom some sort of commercial contacts existed,
cannot be proven though
since there are no written testimonies.
It is often said that the word used in the Mediterranean to designate
compass (bussola) comes from the italian bussolo
(a box made
wood" but i
also have been
copied from the Arabic word el-mouasaléh
(sharp point, sting), the
transformation of M into B being common in several
dialects (Klaproth, p. 29) and in our western languages
etc.). The designation al-konbas
the Italian il
) appeared much later,
after this simple instrument
technologically improved (see below).
Not everybody agrees with
this linguistic and
It has been substantiated by Klaproth, but the fact that he was German
demonstrated that the invention was not the product of the superior
civilization could explain why this theory was not taken
least in France.
seemed that the
Arabs just translated the Chinese device, but didn't actually do lot
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.
weren’t aware of the improved
compass when the
Portuguese seafarers reached that part of the world since t
latter reported that the Arabs used
a sort of
fish-shaped needle able to swim, and that it was magnetized on
But the exact contrary is true
demonstrated (Two Early Arabic Sources on the
by P. G. Schmidl, 52 p., copy available)
Arabs already used a sophisticated technique at the latest in the 13th
find the direction of Mecca (see qibla
r.: Il Millione or The Travels of Marco Polo (1307), Bibl.
bare mineral crystal, the different steps consisted first in carving it
it could work as a pointer (that was the Chinese "spoon").
The next step was to use it
in order to
metallic needle and to design a system that allowed it to
e.g. floating on a piece of bamboo (approx. 8th C. in
China). The system used then consisted of a magnetic
(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.
still exists in the
Latin designation of
natterjack toad (see WIKIPEDIA, bufo
= "reed frog"). Another name in French was marinette
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.
makers first had the idea of placing the needle on a pivot and then to
disk of paper on which a drawing of the main wind directions was
authors have attributed these
achievements to a single genius called Flavio di Gioia (see
Legend of Flavio di
at least two
centuries, several authors (one of them being a legate of the Pope
the compass, but also wrote
that either the
inventor of the system was not known or that it was designed by a
called Gioia who lived in Amalfi.
the late 16th C. the historian Scipio Mazzella, of the city of Naples,
wrote that the compass was invented exactly in 1302 (!) by Flavio di
Gioia (in Descrittione
del regno di Napoli
1588, 2nd Issue, 1601, p. 65).
Since then, almost all
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.
there is no
evidence and this
is only a legend. Fact is that the sailors of Naples in
days had special ties with the Arabic world and were the only ones
them to sail and deal on the eastern Mediterranean and
NOTE: W. Gilbert wrote (De
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
a compass, as Flavius Blondus reports."
Another author, Guillaume de Nautonnier wrote (in La
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
reported by Flavius."
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
Mediterranean (see Cardinals and Religion).
Whoever had the idea to glue
a picture of the winds on a
made it very easy for a sailor to follow a determined direction.
part of the invention
attributed to the above mentioned Flavio di Gioia.
This device made it possible
to navigate by
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
The Medieval Technology Pages by Paul J. Gans).
"There seems to be a reference to a south-pointing spoon* in a
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]
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
Guyot - see Pict. at right - Source: Gallica
written in the 1180s by the French poet
(also called Guyot de
a diminutive form of Hugue, other known names: Hugo Bertius, Hugue de
etc.). He made therein the first known precise description of the
compass (see English translation in Adm. Preble's essay The
was a monk in Clervaux and Cluny and travelled a
reproached the Pope
that he was behaving for the Christians like the
for the sailors
and excerpt below).
The next older mention is to be found
Alexander Neckam's De
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
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
) a further
transmission from the West [White, p. 132].
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
neglected because of the simple logic of the facts. It can be
that the instrument had already been known
by seafarers for a long
time and that its existence was also known to many people,
comparison would not have been understood by the readers of the
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
advantage with the higher speed of delivery, since they would
no longer be
sailing along the coast but straight to their destination harbours
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
compass as a necessity for maritime navigation (Historiæ
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
of years and the general knowledge about it was only made spread in the
wake of the crusades
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
stone" (or lodestone)
(read the full text quoted in Rear
Adm. Preble's essay The
, see Bibliography
- 1181: Hugue de Bercy/Guyot
shortly after him)
wrote that the mariners
used a metallic needle, which
they "lightened up" by rubbing it against a stone), read more in the original text in Klaproth's Letter
to A. von Humboldt
(s. bibliography below).
- 1269: Pierre
wrote (original words in Latin): " [the compass] is
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
- 16th century: a German priest called Georg Hartmann, living in
studied the phenomenon of the declination and had the intuition of inclination
measurements of the
made in 1541 in Paris and in 1580 in London.
- 1576: the British manufacturer of nautical instruments, Robert
described the phenomenon of
- 17th Century: a Portuguese priest called Burrus (Lisboa) transferred,
spherical map of the Earth, the declination values measured at
places, and joined them with lines which we now call isogonic
improved them in 1700 during an expedition intended to measure the
position of the Empire's colonies.
(See also Compass
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
by Robert Norman who studied the inclination.
- De Magnete,
Magneticisque Corporibus, et de Magno Magnete
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
à M. le Baron A. de Humboldt
by Julius H.
(1834), a German linguist (sinologist) who studied and quoted many
French, Arabic and Chinese sources (see image at right, original
online - see note
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
Books didn't scan the oversized pictures. We would gladly
send you photos of them if you kindly consider making a small donation.
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.).
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
designate the needle on floats doesn't come from reed frog
(bufo calamita) but from
the greek kalamos
- image at left) describing all aspects of the compass manufacture
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.
book from the period of history when government was fighting the
overwhelming influence of the Catholic church in France.
(2004) by Alan Gurney. Maybe the best contemporary description of the
development of ships' compasses.
Essentials of Map & Compass
by Cliff Jacobson (see also SILVA
an expert with Map & Compass
by B. Kjellström)
German officer with the marchant navy. He published three
about the compass. The first one, Alte
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.).
(above) main work (2
vol., 1911 & 1915,
see image at right) is a comprehensive
of the complete knowledge about compass history and
technology. Schück quoted probably all
hundreds of pictures of compass cards from the
ones kept in Museums through to the most modern designs of his time
and even the
newly invented Bézard
compass). Unfortunately, it was published
just before and during WWI and was not known outside
just like von Lippmann's study below but for other
A reprint is available but
to the low-resolution scan and down-sized printing
on link for a compared
view of a plate)
most details are not
Moreover, the plates were binded in the wrong order in vol. 2.
- Cathedral, Forge,
subtitled "Technology and Invention in the Middle Ages"
by Frances and Joseph Gies, 1995, HarperPerennial, ISBN 0-06-016590-1.
- Medieval Technology and
by Lynn White,
Jr., Oxford, 1962 (paper),
United Kingdom - Official British Army's manuals with
Sketching, Map Reading and Reconnaissance
(1911). Compass types: various J.
of Map Reading, Photo Reading and Field Sketching
(1929 / 1939 / 1948), compass type: Verner's Service Pattern Mk VIII
of Map Reading, Air Photo Reading and Field Sketching
Office code 8868 (1955). Compass type: Mark
on the pics at right for views of the compasses dealt with
Pattern Mark VII & VIII
by Capt. William
Verner, Rifle Brigade, W.H. Allen & Co. Ltd, London and
1891, 127 p. (s. pic at
- Short & Mason / Tycos - User instruction (see our SHOP)
- Map Reading in a Nutshell, The
, question 117
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
Polden Ltd, 1945, 16 p.)
Map & Compass ...
practical modern guide to map reading and
the day and night use of modern compasses" by Captain J. Noel. Also
of the Liquid Lensatic Compass, 114 p. 1940 (?)
- Geschichte der Magnetnadel
Erfindung des Kompasses
by Edmund Oskar von
1932, 49 p. (an history of the magnetic
needle until ca.1300). The author tries to prove that the compass
very probably invented by the Norsemen around the turn of the 10th
century and brought by them to the eastern Mediterranean area (conclusions:
) to demonstrate the
superiority of the "Nordic Race".
This essay remained totally unknown
because it was published in Germany just before Adolf Hitler took
power. The author didn't quote the respective studies published
shortly before him by L. de Saussure (1923) and S. P. Thomson (1913).
by Amir D. ACZEL: Probably the best written and documented
description of the
compass' early development. Almost perfect, were it not for
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,
it was written and re-written so many times, that it will be a very
early days of AERONAUTICS
FR, GER, click
on titles below for a picture of the cover
, Airboard Techn.
Dept. Aug. 1917, 15 p. (see
Magnetic Compass in
- 'Remarks on compasses in aircraft' by F. Creagh-Osborne, 1915, 35 p.
BE CONFUSED WITH:
Publication 802, London Nov. 1920, 23 p.
Magnetic Compass on Land
(for armoured vehicles) by Cptn
Creagh-Osborne, 1915, 15 p.
on Aero-compasses and their
- Air Publ.
A Collection of Facts and Suggestions from Factory and Flying Field to
Assist in Caring for Modern Aircraft, by Fred Herbert Colvin,
only 2 p. about
compasses in Section XXIII - Instruments for
Aircraft Engineers' Hanbook
by R. W. Sloley (and other authors
depending on edition), 1934 to 1953 - No. 4 Instruments - Compasses
(no. of chapter varies)
J. Hughes, ed. 1923 and 1928 (?)
History of Air Navigation
Alex. J. Hughes. 1946, Chapter VI -
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.
Report no. 476 - Synopsis of
French Aeronautical Equipment
- Compasses made by Vion
and Morel-Krauss in 1927
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:
A History of Aerial Navigation to 1941 by M. D. Wright, 1946
(For French and German books: go to the relevant language versions of
museum for exhaustive updated lists)
SUR L'AIMANT -
published in the series La
populaire de CLAUDIUS
(pseudonym of Charles-Claude Ruelle, 1840, 116 p., French, 3 x
in). Lesson about the proprieties of the magnet. The
chapter about the history of the compass is a short version of
letter to A. von Humboldt
boussole magnétique pour la navigation
Creagh-Osborne, 1916, 52 p.
élémentaire de compensation et d'emploi
Capitaine Robert Gaujour
Kapitän Fritz Gansberg, ed. 1
(1915) and 2 (1917), Krayn, Berlin W., 56 resp. 64 p.
Kompass an Bord
(Deutsche See, warte1906) comprises all necessary mathematical fomulæ
installation of compasses on board of metallic ships but also a precise
description of the compass types utilised in those years, i.e. W.
(Lord Kelvin) system, Hechelmann
improved version of Thomson's rose and Bamberg
- Italian: La bussole magnetica nell'aviazione Ernesto La POLLA, 1918.
the development of SHIP
- From Lodestone to
(1953) by H. L. Hitchins and W. E. May.
as She Goes
(1986) by A. E. FANNING
The History of the Compass Department of the British
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).
de la BOUSSOLE
(Pierre JUHEL, éd. Quæ,
The history of the great discoveries and the compasses used and of the
development of compasses that could work in iron ships.
novel in the His
series by Philip
Pullmann (1995) in which a
fictive instrument called alethiometer
" (from the
= truth and μέτρο
= measure) is the corner stone (see description in Wikipedia). The idea
instrument was maybe inspired by the esoteric compass used
It is an extraordinarily intricate device able to answer any question
formed in the mind of the user. Created long ago by a
scientist, the truth-telling, future-seeing machine points not to true
North like an ordinary compass, but to Truth itself. The alethiometer
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
She is a free-thinker (i.e. atheist) fighting
against the Church
speech of a children-friendly witch in
Book II, The Subtle Knife, p. 50). When one reads these
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
Five Go Down To The Sea
An adventure of the Five
in which a pocket compass
an eminent role!
Der verschwundene Schiffskompass
stolen ship's compass
Günter Görlich, GDR 1968, probably no translation
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.
of the Caribean
compass special function is very probably based on the Walt Disney
story below (see pictures HERE
Great Khan's compass
An adventure of Mickey and
Goofy created who discover
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
(Mickey mouse's Italian name is
Topolino). We only know of a German translation.
at right: Goofy
and Mickey holding the compass (cover of the German version)
La boussole d'ivoire
of the new issue displays a hunter-type
compass with a
lid, contrary to the original
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
€, see our SHOP).
See also the short
the cereals boxes (among other breakfast foodstuff) which were ads for
with a compass.
wondrous compass by Olivier de
Traynel, pseudo of Jean de Neltray, Boivin & Cie Ed., around
French adventure roman in which a metal
called compass (!)
plays the main part:
the instrument rings a bell when near of gold and the needle shows
where the treasure is buried.