Origin of the Compass

The compass has been proven to stand the test of time as a simple instrument with amazing value. The origin of the compass is ancient China, first created during the Qin dynasty of 221-206 B.C. While modern technology, particularly GPS, has made the necessity of a compass seem unnecessary to many, the compass is an invaluable survival tool. The compass is a tool which tells your relation to the Earth’s magnetic field. Soldiers, sailors, airline pilots, hikers, outdoorsmen, miners, fisherman, survivalists, park rangers, and even police make use of a compass. Though technology has advanced, the concept of “knowing your direction” has stayed the same, making the compass, in its many forms an essential tool.

The Chinese invention of the magnetic compass was originally created for use by fortune tellers using lodestones, a mineral that aligns itself magnetically north and south. It was not until much later in history that someone realized lodestones were far more useful for directions. The earliest historical use of a compass, or someone using a “magnetic direction device” is recorded during the Song Dynasty in China circa 1040 A.D. The device was a primitive iron pointer that was used to orient troops during bad nighttime weather conditions when star patterns could not be recognized.

The earliest recorded use of an actual compass with a needle for the purpose of navigation is found in Pingzhou Table Talks, written by Zhu Yu in the year 1119 A.D. The typical Chinese compass was a magnetic needle simply floating in a bowl of water.

In more Western European areas, the compass’ first recorded use was in 1187, by Alexander Neckam who sailed the English Channel with a magnetic compass. In 1269, Petrus Peregrinus wrote about a floating compass used for sailing as well as astronomy. These original compasses were still magnetized metal floating in large bowls of water. During the next two centuries, trading and ship traffic increased dramatically between the Mediterranean and northern Europe, with the first commercial voyages recorded. The use of the compass exploded amongst sailors.

The dry mariner’s compass is a European invention circa 1300 that was made of a freely pivoting needle on a pin enclosed within a little box and a glass cover and wind rose. Smaller and more modern compasses such as the bearing compass were mounted in a fashion that allowed taking bearings of objects by aligning them with the lubber line. These compasses all required a protractor and paper to make bearings and directions.

Not until a Swedish instrument maker, Gunnar Tillander, invented a new compass in 1928 was the protractor abandoned. His style of the compass incorporated the use of a map with a protractor into the same space as the actual needle. This allowed bearings to be detected without the use of a protractor. The needle would align with the baseplate and the user merely had to rotate the capsule to align with the directional markings.

The liquid compass with bearings included in a much smaller and more user-friendly form was not used until the 1900s. Today, the there are hundreds of types of compasses that can be used, although a small handheld version of Gunnar Tillander’s design  remains the most popular and inexpensive. This tool has proven itself as an invaluable invention since the Chinese created the first rudimentary compass.