Accounts of the history of the compass often points to 2nd century BC China as its place of origin. However there are researchers who say the Olmecs were using a compass around 1000 BC. However, the authenticity of this finding has yet to be fully verified.
The Compass in Ancient China
It is not possible to state with certainly who actually invented the first compass. But it may have been in use by the time of the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC). The earliest compasses were lodestones. This mineral is made of iron oxide which orients itself to a north and south axis.
In 1117 Zhu Yu’s book Pingzhou Table Talks came out. It was the first time in the history of the compass that the device was mentioned as a tool for navigation. From the 800s to the 1040s, the Chinese referred to magnetism and magnetic needles in many of their books. Their exact use prior to the 1100s was for building edifices. During earlier times it was also probably used for fortune telling.
The Magnetic Needles
By the 8th century AD, magnetic needles had replaced the loadstones as navigational devices. From the 8th century to the 1050s the compass was reportedly being used by ships. Records show that Zheng He of Yunnan (1371-1435) used the device during his voyages. Based on the history of the compass, these voyages took place between 1405 to 1433.
From China to Europe
There is no consensus on how knowledge of the compass spread to Europe and other parts of the world. One theory is that Chinese traders made their way to the Middle East and then to Europe. Others think that the compass was developed in Europe without any Chinese influence. Another theory is that the compass made its way
from China to Europe directly.
The earliest record of magnetic needles in Europe comes from Alexander Neckam’s On the Natures of Things (Paris, 1190). The device was also mentioned in the Arabic work called The Book of Merchants’ Treasure (1282). This book was written by Baylak al-Kibjaki.
The Modern Compass
The modern history of the compass began with William Sturgeon’s invention of the electromagnet in 1825. The British inventor’s creation would lead to the development of the modern compass.
Since that time, a number of different compasses have emerged. The bearing compass came out in the early 18th century. By 1885, the hand compass had been patented. The earliest prototype of the liquid compass was demonstrated by Sir Edmund Halley around the year 1690.
Today there are many types available. These products usually include a protractor and map scales. These devices allow the user to accurately measure their location.
They also come with mirrors and other sighting devices. Global needles are also becoming standard. These are useful for differing hemispheres. Measuring gradients are also included in many devices.
The invention and history of the compass is another triumph of human ingenuity. It certainly ranks as one of the most important devices that have been conceived by the human mind.