Quick Facts:

The first practical compass seems to have been made in Venice in 1274. It was a device supporting a magnetized needle over a card showing four or eight points of direction.

Date: 1300 CE - 1900 CE

Anatomy of a Compass

Anatomy of a Compass

Anatomy of a Compass, Description de L’Univers, 1683, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, G114.M25 rare.

There were many devices in different parts of the world before 1200 which pointed north. Many used lodestones (magnetic rocks) or needles which had been magnetized by rubbing them against a lodestone. it doesn’t seem that they everit e cultures that for finding direction attach the magnet to a compass card showing the directions. It seems that the Venetians made the first practical compass in 1274.This compass was a magnetized needle supporting a compass card which showed four or eight points of direction. The compass was likely a valuable trade secret, and it was not shared with anyone. Before the year 1311, there are no pictures of compasses. But after 1311, pictures showing maritime subjects all have compasses in them.

Before the modern compass came into use, land-based traders, sailors and ordinary people had various ways of referring to direction when asked where they came from or where going to. They might say they were going towards a large mountain, or the sea, or the rising sun.

Some of the earliest such directions we have are from the Phoenicians, a sea-going, trading people who lived in what we now call Lebanon on the eastern side of the Mediterranean Sea. They were important and powerful business people from about 1200 BCE to about 200 BCE. These mariners, when they were at home in the eastern part of the Mediterranean, were asked where they went to trade their cargoes. They replied they were going “toward the setting sun.” In the Phoenician language, the word sounded like ereb. Similarly, when they were in the western Mediterranean and were asked where they came from, the most logical answer was, “the land of the rising sun,” or asu. In time, other people heard these words and changed them. Ereb became Europe, which is to the west of Phoenician cities, and asu turned into Asia, the land to the east of Phoenicia.

Over time, the Phoenician civilization declined, and eventually the Romans rose to power. It was now the Romans’ turn to name the directions – in Latin instead of the Phoenician language. Even though the Romans were noted for their writing of great stories, plays, histories and biographies, when it came to naming directions, they weren’t any more creative than the Phoenicians. They called the land on the eastern Mediterranean “the land of the rising sun,” or the orient.  “The land of the setting sun” gave us the occident; both names are common in English for the Eastern and Western Hemispheres of the earth. For many years, China, Japan, and other countries in eastern Asia were referred to as the Orient. The Romans also gave us another navigational tool related to direction and position finding. They created a grid system for their maps to measure distances east and west, north and south. Because the Mediterranean is a relatively long sea, east to west, but not very wide, north to south, they named the east-west direction the “long direction” and the north- south direction the “wide direction.” This doesn’t sound too exciting or adventuresome in English, but in Latin it comes out pretty nicely. The words “longitude” (for east-west measurements) and “latitude” (for north-south measurements) come from the Latin equivalents for the English words “long” and “wide.” 

Before the compass, sailors used a lodestone to help find their direction at sea. There were two main ways to use a lodestone. The first was to hang it from a string, and allow it to turn and point north. The second was to float it on a piece of wood in a bowl of water, where it would drift towards the north. Most sailors used the water method, because when they were standing on the deck of a moving ship it was hard to keep the string from swinging around too much. 

When Europeans first started to use the lodestone, they were not interested in the compass directions as we think of them today. In fact, they hadn’t even invented those terms yet. They used the lodestone to determine the direction of the wind. This was very important for sailors; most of the time, they had to sail with the wind blowing them in the direction they wanted to go. Sailors gave names to the winds that blew from different directions:  •       T = Tramontana (Blowing from the North)

  • G = Greco (Northeast)
  • + = Levante (East – The symbol for East is a cross.)
  • S = Sirocco (Southeast)
  • O = Ostro (South)
  • L = Libeccio (Southwest)
  • P = Ponente (West)
  • M = Maestro (Northwest)

Even today, we still name the winds by the directions from which they come. A north wind blows from the north, not toward it. 

In this early system, sailors gave names to winds from eight different directions. In time, they would divide their compasses into 32 points. These points on the compass reminded sailors of a certain flower, and the face of the compass came to be called the “compass rose.”

Eventually, by the 1800’s, the circle of the compass would be divided into 360 degrees, but sailors would still use the “point” system. Each compass point, then, equaled 11 ¼ degrees under the new system. So if a ship changed its course at sea by four points, it would be turning by 45 degrees. 

In Southern Europe – around the Mediterranean Sea – sailors named the directions for the winds. But Northern Europeans also developed names for the directions. 

  • The direction of the sunrise came from the Greek word for dawn, eos. In time, this word developed into “east.”
  • At noon the sun is at its highest point in the sky, and in Europe the sun at noonis always in a particular direction. That direction became known as the “sunne” direction, and over time the pronunciation changed to “south.”
  • The Latin word for evening is vespers, a word we still use for evening prayer services in certain Christian churches. In Latin, the first “v” is pronounced like a “w,” so it would sound like “wespers.” It’s easy to see how the word became “west” over time.
  • For the Scandinavians who were developing these directions, the land to the north of them was a place of cold, storms and terrible weather. In their time, they believed that hell was not a hot place, but one of freezing cold, so they called north the “hell direction.” They used the Greek word, nerteros, which changed over time to nord and eventually to our word “north.”

The directions on a modern compass are combinations of these four points of the compass. There are many interesting ways of remembering these directions: the word NEWS or the more colorful phrase, “Never Eat Squishy Worms”. The points halfway between two other major points take both of their names. For example, halfway between north and east is northeast. Halfway between north and northeast is north northeast. If you wanted to sound sailorly, you would pronounce this, “nor, nor eas.”

Even though today we use the Northern European names for the directions, the modern compass has one hold-over from the Southern European system.  When the French were making compasses in the 1300′s, they used a very fancy letter “T” to mark the north wind – Tramontana. It looked like the lily flower – in French, fleur de lis. To this day, the fancy design often marking the direction of north on a compass, the fleur de lis, is a reminder of this older time when directions were named for the winds.