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  1. Plural of compass

Extensive Definition

A compass, (or mariner compass) is a navigational instrument for finding directions on the Earth. It consists of a magnetized pointer free to align itself accurately with Earth's magnetic field, which is of great assistance in navigation. The face of the compass generally highlights the cardinal points of north, south, east and west. The compass greatly improved maritime trade by making travel safer and more efficient. A compass can be used to calculate heading, used with a sextant to calculate latitude, and with a marine chronometer to calculate longitude). It thus provides a much improved navigational capability, that has only been recently supplanted by modern devices such as the gyrocompass and the Global Positioning System (GPS).
An early form of the compass (a magnetized needle floating in water) was invented in China sometime before 1044. The familiar dry mariner's compass was invented in Europe around 1300. This was supplanted in the 20th century by the liquid-filled magnetic compass. Fundamentally, the classic compass is any magnetically sensitive device able to indicate the direction of the magnetic north of a planet's magnetosphere. Often compasses are built as a stand-alone sealed instrument with a magnetized bar or needle turning freely upon a pivot, or moving in a fluid, thus able to point in a northerly and southerly direction.
Many enhancements to the compass have been developed. A compass dial is a small pocket compass with a sundial. A variation compass is a specific instrument of a delicate type of construction. It is used by observing variations of the needle. An orienteering compass consists of a ruggedized needle compass permanently attached to a transparent baseplate containing tools to assist the user in working with maps in a field setting (as opposed to in an office at a desk).
Other, more accurate, devices have been invented for determining north that do not depend on the Earth's magnetic field for operation (known in such cases as true north, as opposed to magnetic north). A gyrocompass or astrocompass can be used to find true north, while being unaffected by stray magnetic fields, nearby electrical power circuits or nearby large masses of ferrous metals. A recent development is the electronic compass, which detects the magnetic directions without requiring moving parts. This device frequently appears as an optional subsystem built into GPS receivers.

Construction of a simple compass

A magnetic rod is required when constructing a compass. This can be created by aligning an iron or steel rod with Earth's magnetic field and then tempering or striking it. However, this method produces only a weak magnet so other methods are preferred. For example, a magnetised rod can be created by repeatedly rubbing an iron rod with a magnetic lodestone. This magnetised rod (or magnetic needle) is then placed on a low friction surface to allow it to freely pivot to align itself with the magnetic field. It is then labeled so the user can distinguish the north-pointing from the south-pointing end; in modern convention the north end is typically marked in some way, often by being painted red.

History of the navigational compass


Prior to the introduction of the compass, direction at sea was primarily determined by the position of celestial bodies. Navigation was supplemented in some places by the use of soundings. Difficulties arose where the sea was too deep for soundings and conditions were continually overcast or foggy. Thus the compass was not of the same utility everywhere. For example, the Arabs could generally rely on clear skies in navigating the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean (as well as the predictable nature of the monsoons). This may explain in part their relatively late adoption of the compass. Mariners in the relatively shallow Baltic made extensive use of soundings. The astrolabe, originally invented in the Hellenistic world, was significantly improved upon by later medieval Muslim astronomers and navigators who used it to aid in navigation.


The find of an Olmec hematite artifact, fitted with a sighting mark and found in experiment as fully operational as a compass, has led the American astronomer John Carlson after radiocarbon dating to conclude that "the Olmec may have discovered and used the geomagnetic lodestone compass earlier than 1000 BC". Carlson suggests that the Olmecs may have used such devices for directional orientation of the dwellings of the living and the interments of the dead.

Needle-and-bowl device

By rubbing a needle on another magnet, the needle becomes magnetized and when placed in a cork and put in a bowl of water it becomes a compass. This device was universally used as a compass until the introduction of the box-like compass with a pivoting "dry" needle around 1300.


Due to disagreement as to when the compass was invented, it may be appropriate to list some noteworthy Chinese literary references offered as possible evidence for its antiquity, in chronological order:
  • The first recorded use of a 48 position mariner's compass on sea navigation was noted in a book titled “The Customs of Cambodia” by Yuan dynasty diplomat Zhou Daguan, he described his 1296 voyage from Wenzhou to Angkor Thom in detail; when his ship set sailed from Wenzhou, the mariner took a needle direction of “ding wei” position, which is equivalent to 22.5 degree SW. After they arrived at Baria, the mariner took "Kun Shen needle" , or 52.5 degree SW.
  • Zheng He's Navigation Map, also known as "The Mao Kun Map", contains a large amount of detail "needle records" of Zheng He's travel.
  • A pilot's compass handbook titled Shun Feng Xiang Song (Fair Winds for Escort) in the Oxford Bodleian Library contains great details about the use of compass in navigation.

Question of diffusion

There have been various arguments put forward whether the European compass was an independent invention or not:
Arguments pro independent invention:
  • The navigational needle in Europe points invariably north, whereas nearly always south in China.
  • The European compass showed from the beginning sixteen basic divisions, not twenty-four as in China.
  • The apparent failure of the Arabs to function as possible intermediaries between East and West due to the earlier recorded appearance of the compass in Europe (1190)

Impact in the Mediterranean

In the Mediterranean, the introduction of the mariner's compass, at first only known as a magnetized pointer floating in a bowl of water, went hand in hand with improvements in dead reckoning methods, and the development of Portolan charts, leading to more navigation during winter months in the second half of the 13th century. While the practice from ancient times had been to curtail sea travel between October and April, due in part to the lack of dependable clear skies during the Mediterranean winter, the prolongation of the sailing season resulted in a gradual, but sustained increase in shipping movement: By around 1290 the sailing season could start in late January or February, and end in December. The additional few months were of considerable economic importance. For instance, it enabled Venetian convoys to make two round trips a year to the Levant, instead of one.
At the same time, traffic between the Mediterranean and northern Europe also increased, with first evidence of direct commercial voyages from the Mediterranean into the English Channel coming in the closing decades of the 13th century, and one factor may be that the compass made traversal of the Bay of Biscay safer and easier. Although critics like Kreutz feels that it was later in 1410 that anyone really started steering by compass.


The use of a compass as a direction finder underground was pioneered by the Tuscan mining town Massa where floating magnetic needles were employed for determining tunneling and defining the claims of the various mining companies as early as the 13th century. In the second half of the 15th century, the compass belonged to the standard equipment of Tyrolian miners, and shortly afterwards a first detailed treatise dealing with the underground use of compasses was published by the German miner Rülein von Calw (1463-1525).

Dry compass

The familiar dry compass (commonly called a mariner's compass) was invented in Europe around 1300. The dry mariner's compass consists of three elements: A freely pivoting needle on a pin enclosed in a little box with a glass cover and a wind rose, whereby "the wind rose or compass card is attached to a magnetized needle in such a manner that when placed on a pivot in a box fastened in line with the keel of the ship the card would turn as the ship changed direction, indicating always what course the ship was on". While pivoting needles in glass boxes had already been described by the French scholar Peter Peregrinus in 1269, there is an inclination to honour tradition and credit Flavio Gioja (fl. 1302), an Italian marine pilot from Amalfi, with perfecting the sailor's compass by suspending its needle over a compass card, giving thus the compass its familiar appearance. Such a compass with the needle attached to a rotating card is also described in a commentary on Dante's Divine Comedy from 1380, while an earlier source refers to a portable compass in a box (1318), supporting the notion that the dry compass was known in Europe by then.

Bearing compass

A bearing compass is a magnetic compass mounted in such a way that it allows the taking of bearings of objects by aligning them with the lubber line of the bearing compass. The Bezard compass was invented in 1906, and consists of a compass with a mirror mounted above it. This enabled the user to easily see the face of the compass while also viewing the surrounding landscape. Later, a prism and lens was mounted on top of a compass in such a way that enabled the user to accurately sight the heading of geographical landmarks, thus creating the prismatic compass.

Liquid compass

In 1936 Tuomas Vohlonen invented the first successful portable liquid-filled compass designed for individual use. Most compasses sold for individual use today are liquid-filled compasses.

Modern compasses

Modern hand-held navigational compasses use a magnetized needle or dial inside a fluid-filled capsule (oil, kerosene, or alcohol is common); the fluid causes the needle to stop quickly rather than oscillate back and forth around magnetic north. Most modern recreational and military compasses integrate a protractor with the compass, using a separate magnetized needle. In this design the rotating capsule containing the magnetized needle is fitted with orienting lines and an outlined orienting arrow, then mounted in a transparent baseplate containing a direction-of-travel (DOT) indicator for use in taking bearings directly from a map. Other features found on some modern handheld compasses are map and romer scales for measuring distances and plotting positions on maps, luminous markings or bezels for use at night or poor light, various sighting mechanisms (mirror, prism, etc.) for taking bearings of distant objects with greater precision, "global" needles for use in differing hemispheres, adjustable declination for obtaining instant true bearings without resort to arithmetic, and devices such as inclinometers for measuring gradients.
The military forces of a few nations, notably the United States Army, continue to utilize older lensatic card compass designs with magnetized compass dials instead of needles. A lensatic card compass permits reading the bearing off of the compass card with only a slight downward glance from the sights (see photo), but requires a separate protractor for use with a map. The official U.S. military lensatic compass does not use fluid to dampen needle swing, but rather electromagnetic induction. A "deep-well" design is used to allow the compass to be used globally with little or no effect in accuracy caused by a tilting compass dial. As induction forces provide less damping than fluid-filled designs, a needle lock is fitted to the compass to reduce wear, operated by the folding action of the rear sight/lens holder. The use of air-filled induction compasses has declined over the years, as they may become inoperative or inaccurate in freezing temperatures or humid environments.
Mariner's compasses can have two or more magnetic needles permanently attached to a compass card. These move freely on a pivot. A lubber line, which can be a marking on the compass bowl or a small fixed needle indicates the ship's heading on the compass card.
Traditionally the card is divided into thirty-two points (known as rhumbs), although modern compasses are marked in degrees rather than cardinal points. The glass-covered box (or bowl) contains a suspended gimbal within a binnacle. This preserves the horizontal position.
Some modern military compasses, like the SandY-183, contains the radioactive material tritium (3H) and a combination of phosphors. The SandY-183 contained 120mCi (millicuries) of tritium. The purpose of the tritium and phosphors is to provide illumination for the compass. This illumination is a form of fluorescence, not requiring the compass to be "recharged" by sunlight or artificial light. The name SandY-183 is derived from the name of the company, Stocker and Yale (SandY).

Points of the compass

Originally, many compasses were marked only as to the direction of magnetic north, or to the four cardinal points (north, south, east, west). Later, mariners divided the compass card into thirty-two equally spaced points divided from the cardinal points. For a table of the thirty-two points, see compass points.
The 360-degree system later took hold, which is still in use today for civilian navigators. The degree dial spaces the compass markings with 360 equidistant points. Other nations adopted the "grad" system, which spaces the dial into 400 grads or points.
Most military defense forces have adopted the "mil" system, in which the compass dial is spaced into 6400 units (some nations use 6000) or "mils" for additional precision when measuring angles, laying artillery, etc. The value to the military is that one mil subtends approximately one metre at a distance of one kilometer.
Former Warsaw Pact countries (Soviet Union, GDR etc.) used a 60° graduation, often counterclockwise (see picture of wrist compass). This is still in use in Russia.


A gyrocompass is similar to a gyroscope. It is a compass that finds true north by using an (electrically powered) fast-spinning wheel and friction forces in order to exploit the rotation of the Earth. Gyrocompasses are widely used on ships. They have two main advantages over magnetic compasses:
  • they find true north, i.e., the direction of Earth's rotational axis, as opposed to magnetic north,
  • they are not affected by ferrous metal in a ship's hull. (No compass is affected by nonferrous metal, although a magnetic compass will be affected by non-ferrous wires with current running through them.)
Large ships typically rely on a gyrocompass, using the magnetic compass only as a backup. Increasingly, electronic fluxgate compasses are used on smaller vessels. However compasses are still widely in use as they can be small, use simple reliable technology, are comparatively cheap, often easier to use than GPS, require no energy supply, and unlike GPS, are not affected by objects, e.g, trees that can block the reception of electronic signals.

Solid state compasses

Small compasses found in clocks, cell phones, e.g., the Nokia 5140i, and other electronic gear are solid-state devices, usually built out of two or three magnetic field sensors that provide data for a microprocessor. Using trigonometry the correct heading relative to the compass is calculated.
Often, the device is a discrete component which outputs either a digital or analog signal proportional to its orientation. This signal is interpreted by a controller or microprocessor and used either internally, or sent to a display unit. An example implementation, including parts list and circuit schematics, shows one design of such electronics. The sensor uses precision magnetics and highly calibrated internal electronics to measure the response of the device to the Earth's magnetic field. The electrical signal is then processed or digitized.

Specialty compasses

A range of specialty compasses would include a Qibla compass, which is used by Muslims to show the direction to Mecca for prayers. Similarly, a Jerusalem compass is used by Jews to point the direction of Jerusalem for prayers.
Other specialty compasses include the optical or prismatic hand-bearing compass, often used by surveyors, cave explorers, or mariners. This compass uses an oil-filled capsule and magnetized compass dial with an integral optical or prismatic sight, often fitted with built-in photoluminescent or battery-powered illumination. Using the optical or prism sight, such compasses can be read with extreme accuracy when taking bearings to an object, often to fractions of a degree. Most of these compasses are designed for heavy-duty use, with solid metal housings, and many are fitted for tripod mounting for additional accuracy.

Using a compass

The simplest way of using a compass is to know that the arrow always points in the same direction, magnetic North, which is roughly similar to true north. Except in areas of extreme magnetic declination variance (20 degrees or more), this is enough to protect from walking in a substantially different or even opposite direction than expected over short distances, provided the terrain is fairly flat and visibility is not impaired. In fact, by carefully recording distances (time or paces) and magnetic bearings traveled, one can plot a course and return to one's starting point using the compass alone.
However, compass navigation used in conjunction with a map (terrain association) requires a different compass method. To take a map bearing or true bearing (a bearing taken in reference to true, not magnetic north) to a destination with a protractor compass, the edge of the compass is placed on the map so that it connects the current location with the desired destination (some sources recommend physically drawing a line). The orienting lines in the base of the compass dial are then rotated to align with actual or true north by aligning them with a marked line of longitude (or the vertical margin of the map), ignoring the compass needle entirely. The resulting true bearing or map bearing may then be read at the degree indicator or direction-of-travel (DOT) line, which may be followed as an azimuth (course) to the destination. If a magnetic north bearing or compass bearing is desired, the compass must be adjusted by the amount of magnetic declination before using the bearing so that both map and compass are in agreement. In the given example, the large mountain in the second photo was selected as the target destination on the map.
The modern hand-held protractor compass always has an additional direction-of-travel (DOT) arrow or indicator inscribed on the baseplate. To check one's progress along a course or azimuth, or to ensure that the object in view is indeed the destination, a new compass reading may be taken to the target if visible (here, the large mountain). After pointing the DOT arrow on the baseplate at the target, the compass is oriented so that the needle is superimposed over the orienting arrow in the capsule. The resulting bearing indicated is the magnetic bearing to the target. Again, if one is using "true" or map bearings, and the compass does not have preset, pre-adjusted declination, one must additionally add or subtract magnetic declination to convert the magnetic bearing into a true bearing. The exact value of the magnetic declination is place-dependent and varies over time, though declination is frequently given on the map itself or obtainable on-line from various sites. If not, any local walker club should know it. If the hiker has been following the correct path, the compass' corrected (true) indicated bearing should closely correspond to the true bearing previously obtained from the map.
This method is sometimes known as the Silva 1-2-3 System, after Silva Compass, manufacturers of the first protractor compasses.
Dynamic rotating draggable Silva compasses are available online to practice setting compass and map bearings.

Compass correction

Like any magnetic device, compasses are affected by nearby ferrous materials as well as by strong local electromagnetic forces. Compasses used for wilderness land navigation should never be used in close proximity to ferrous metal objects or electromagnetic fields (batteries, car bonnets, engines, steel pitons, wristwatches, etc.)
Compasses used in or near trucks, cars or other mechanized vehicles are particularly difficult to use accurately, even when corrected for deviation by the use of built-in magnets or other devices. Large amounts of ferrous metal combined with the on-and-off electrical fields caused by the vehicle's ignition and charging systems generally result in significant compass errors.
At sea, a ship's compass must also be corrected for errors, called deviation, caused by iron and steel in its structure and equipment. The ship is swung, that is rotated about a fixed point while its heading is noted by alignment with fixed points on the shore. A compass deviation card is prepared so that the navigator can convert between compass and magnetic headings. The compass can be corrected in three ways. First the lubber line can be adjusted so that it is aligned with the direction in which the ship travels, then the effects of permanent magnets can be corrected for by small magnets fitted within the case of the compass. The effect of ferromagnetic materials in the compass's environment can be corrected by two iron balls mounted on either side of the compass binnacle. The coefficient a_0 representing the error in the lubber line, while a_1,b_1 the ferromagnetic effects and a_2,b_2 the non-ferromagnetic component.
A similar process is used to calibrate the compass in light general aviation aircraft, with the compass deviation card often mounted permanently just above or below the magnetic compass on the instrument panel.
Fluxgate compasses can be calibrated automatically, and can also be programmed with the correct local compass variation so as to indicate the true heading.

Compass balancing

Because the Earth's magnetic field's inclination and intensity vary at different latitudes, compasses are often balanced during manufacture. Most manufacturers balance their compass needles for one of five zones, ranging from zone 1, covering most of the Northern Hemisphere, to zone 5 covering Australia and the southern oceans. This balancing prevents excessive dipping of one end of the needle which can cause the compass card to stick and give false readings.
Suunto/Recta has introduced Two Zone System compasses that can be used in one entire hemisphere, and to a limited extent in another without significant loss of accuracy. It also makes Global System compasses (globally balanced), which can be used accurately all over the world.

See also




  • Admiralty, Great Britain (1915) Admiralty manual of navigation, 1914, Chapter XXV: "The Magnetic Compass (continued): the analysis and correction of the deviation", London : HMSO, 525 p.
  • Aczel, Amir D. (2001) The Riddle of the Compass: The Invention that Changed the World, 1st Ed., New York : Harcourt, ISBN 0-15-600753-3
  • Carlson, John B. (1975) "Lodestone Compass: Chinese or Olmec Primacy?: Multidisciplinary analysis of an Olmec hematite artifact from San Lorenzo, Veracruz, Mexico”, Science, 189 (4205 : 5 September), p. 753-760, DOI 10.1126/science.189.4205.753
  • Gies, Frances and Gies, Joseph (1994) Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel: Technology and Invention in the Middle Age, New York : HarperCollins, ISBN 0-06-016590-1
  • Gurney, Alan (2004) Compass: A Story of Exploration and Innovation, London : Norton, ISBN 0-393-32713-2
  • Kreutz, Barbara M. (1973) "Mediterranean Contributions to the Medieval Mariner's Compass", Technology and Culture, 14 (3: July), p. 367–383
  • Lane, Frederic C. (1963) "The Economic Meaning of the Invention of the Compass", The American Historical Review, 68 (3: April), p. 605–617
  • Li Shu-hua (1954) "Origine de la Boussole 11. Aimant et Boussole", Isis, 45 (2: July), p. 175–196
  • Ludwig, Karl-Heinz and Schmidtchen, Volker (1997) Metalle und Macht: 1000 bis 1600, Propyläen Technikgeschichte, Berlin : Propyläen-Verl., ISBN 3-549-05633-8
  • Ma, Huan (1997) Ying-yai sheng-lan [The overall survey of the ocean's shores (1433)], Feng, Ch'eng-chün (ed.) and Mills, J.V.G. (transl.), Bangkok : White Lotus Press, ISBN 974-8496-78-3
  • Needham, Joseph (1986) Science and civilisation in China, Vol. 4: "Physics and physical technology", Pt. 1: "Physics", Taipei: Caves Books, originally publ. by Cambridge University Press (1962), ISBN 0-521-05802-3
  • Needham, Joseph and Ronan, Colin A. (1986) The shorter Science and civilisation in China : an abridgement of Joseph Needham's original text, Vol. 3, Chapter 1: "Magnetism and Electricity", Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-25272-5
  • Taylor, E.G.R. (1951) "The South-Pointing Needle", Imago Mundi, 8, p. 1–7
  • Williams, J.E.D. (1992) From Sails to Satellites: the origin and development of navigational science, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-856387-6
  • Zhou, Daguan (2007) The customs of Cambodia, translated into English from the French version by Paul Pelliot of Zhou's Chinese original by J. Gilman d'Arcy Paul, Phnom Penh : Indochina Books, prev publ. by Bangkok : Siam Society (1993), ISBN 974-8298-25-6

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