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).
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 supposed 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.
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 (read Two early Arabic sources on the
Arabs already used a sophisticated technique at 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
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 the reed or on
a piece of wood . It
was hence called calamite
(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.
Legend of Flavio di
For 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
(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
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 Mariner's Compass
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
, i.e. "leading
stone" (or lodestone)
(read the full text quoted in Rear
Adm. Preble's essay The Mariner's
, see Bibliography below).
- 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 TESLA Universe
and 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.
- 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).
- The newe Attractive
by Robert Norman who studied the inclination.
magnete, magneticisique corporibus
by William Gilbert
"On the Magnet"), physician at
the court of Elizabeth in
1600 who understood that the Earth is a Magnet.
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
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.
- 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. anti-religious) French
book from the period of history when government was fighting the
overwelming influence of the Catholic church in France.
(2004) by Alan Gurney. Maybe the best contemporary description of the
development of ships' compasses.
by A. Schück
vol., image at right). A comprehensive
of the complete knowledge about compass history and
technology by this German captain who quoted probably all
hundreds of pictures of compass cards from the
ones kept in Museums through to the most modern designs of his time
Chetwynd). 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.
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 future 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
as She Goes
(1986) by A. E. FANNING
The History of the Compass Department of the (British)
- The Mariner's Compass
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 Guiot'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).