A compass is an essential tool for navigation, even in the age of satellite and GPS devices. Compasses have been around for centuries and were invented to help sailors navigate before the world was developed or mapped. However, who invented the first compass?
The first compass was probably invented by the Chinese sometime around the first century. While historians aren’t sure of the exact origin of the compass, Chinese sailors had it about a thousand years before Europeans invented a version of the compass.
The history of the compass is intriguing. When sailors first created it, they used a magnetic compass to find true north. It wasn’t until years later that other compass types came into existence, and scientists realized that magnetic compasses weren’t as accurate as previously believed.
How Was The First Compass Invented and Where?
Most likely, the first compass was invented sometime in the very early centuries of the Common Era by the Chinese. There are records of very early use of magnets to divine direction, especially while sailing or navigating on land.
The first compass would not have looked like the traditional handheld item that we use today. Instead, it was probably a variation of a piece of metal rubbed over a natural magnet (or lodestone) that would cause the metal needle to point north for a short time.
From here, Chinese scientists made the needle more permanent, attaching it to the lodestone and allowing it to spin. This innovation allowed for increased sailing, navigation, and mapping out the seas more accurately. It greatly expanded China’s ability to explore, trade, and come home safely.
Compass Use Finally Expands
However, China did not connect to the rest of the world socially or economically. Both because of its distance from modern Europe and its political strategy, traders and explorers from other countries didn’t contact China until much later. Many of their inventions and innovations, like the compass, were hidden from the rest of the world for years.
European inventors created the similar compass around the twelfth century, nearly one thousand years later. It’s unlikely that they took inspiration from their Eastern neighbors–at that point, there were very few travelers to and from China. Instead, European sailors probably used the magnetic science of the ancient Greeks to create their compass.
What Was the First Compass Used For?
The first compass was mostly used for navigation. On land, Chinese explorers would create detailed maps of previously unexplored areas. Where they had used the sun, moon, and stars to help them navigate, a compass gave sailors the ability to go farther and come back more accurately.
In addition to navigation, scholars suggest that the earliest compasses were also used for divination. Because the metal rod appeared to move on its own, diviners could use a rudimentary compass as a method of deciding on religious or personal matters.
Inner Workings of Early Compasses
The first semblance of the compass might have been invented in the very early centuries, but the working compass for sailing and navigating likely wasn’t around until much later. The compass developed over centuries as scientists found better methods of attaching the metal needle to the lodestone.
There were several methods of keeping the metal near the magnet without it sticking: the first was likely keeping the lodestone in a bowl of water and floating the metal on top of the water. When held still, the needle would always point north and south. Other methods included suspending the needle beneath the lodestone and keeping both in a box.
Using a compass was essential to traveling far. The old navigation method used the positions of the sun, moon, and stars to find direction. While this was a stable method of finding a way home, it only worked when the skies were clear. A compass points north no matter what the weather is. This quality made it invaluable to sailors and adventurers.
Who Invented the Magnetic Compass?
While the Chinese put the theory of magnetism to work first to create the magnetic compass, they weren’t the only ones to create a similar device. It was years later, but European sailors independently invented the same thing. They were using the science of magnets derived from the ancient Greeks, who studied it thousands of years before.
The first person to realize that magnetic surfaces caused the metal to polarize (point north and south) is unknown to history. However, their innovation caused an enormous leap in navigation, exploration, and seafaring. The exact inventor might not be known, but the invention is one of the greatest in human history.
Interesting Fact: A Compass Doesn’t Actually Point North
As more and more sailors were using a compass to navigate, some noticed a strange phenomenon. The device wasn’t always exact. In fact, sometimes, it was several miles off-course. It was several years before explorers realized why this was happening.
The needle in a compass does not point true north. Instead, it points to Earth’s magnetic north, which isn’t a fixed point. A sailor navigating with a compass and a map will not end up where they want to go, especially as they get closer to the North or South poles.
As soon as this discrepancy was discovered, sailors were able to calculate their actual geographical position based on their compass and how many miles from the Equator they were sailing. Some sailors adjusted their compasses by using iron balls on either side of the lodestone.
Modern compasses are technologically advanced enough to always point due north, or at least very close to it. This is because many compasses use small stabilizers to adjust to the true north. This was not the case when compasses were first invented.
What Other Compasses Were Invented?
Of course, the magnetic compass isn’t the only kind of compass out there. While it’s the most commonly used even today, the magnetic compass has been briefly replaced with several different types of compass over the centuries.
Compasses are just methods of telling which way is the north, so some of the types here don’t involve an in-hand device. However, they have all been used to navigate and explore for years and are an essential part of the history of the compass.
Before the discovery of magnetism, humans were still exploring the globe and getting home. Instead of using a device, they used the position of the sun, moon, and stars to guide them through the charted areas of the world. The sun always rises in the east and sets in the west, and sailors used its position to chart which direction they were headed.
The moon and stars were even easier to chart by, as the stars have set positions in the sky. However, this method of navigation could be difficult if the sky was clouded over or it was rainy. Sailors could wait days to be able to travel again and drift further and further off course.
The magnetic compass was first only used as a backup to the celestial beings. When the weather wasn’t good, early sailors used a compass. However, as compasses grew more and more sophisticated, they overtook traditional navigation and became much more mainstream.
Now, there are still ways to use the sun to tell direction. Of course, if the sun is in the sky, you can judge which direction it is headed and know that the sun always goes west. However, wanderers without a compass can also use their watch or a stick to set up a sundial and find the cardinal directions.
One of the only physical compasses that don’t use magnets, the gyrocompass employs the force of gravity to help find north. It involves the gyro wheel, an ancient Greek invention to measure speed and direction. When being used, the wheel will spin so that the axis of rotation always points north and south.
The gyrocompass is much more complicated than a magnetic compass but is often in cargo ships and other vessels. Unaffected by the Earth’s magnetic field, a gyrocompass always points true north instead of the magnetic north. For this reason, it was very popular after its invention.
Nowadays, the primary method of navigation is through satellite technology. With the imagery sent down from space, our GPSes, computers, and smartphones can access directions anywhere in the world. It uses vastly different technology from the compass.
Instead of pointing in one direction and leaving the user to figure out which way to go, satellite technology locates the user’s device in real-time, giving instructions on where to turn and how far to drive, walk, or sail. It is much easier to use than a compass and has proved immeasurably helpful for modern society.
However, without the basic technology provided by a compass, none of the advancements that led to satellite technology would have happened. We can know where we are on the globe because of the explorers who invented a way to tell north from the south on a cloudy day.
The compass remains an essential tool, even though society has largely moved on to satellite-based navigation systems. However, none of that technology would have been possible without the first compass invented by the Chinese over 2,000 years ago.