Compasses are some of the oldest navigational tools in history. Since Mankind started to understand more about Navigation they have been crucial to major feats of navigation such as the first transoceanic voyages and the circumnavigation of the globe. None of this would be possible without the aid of the compass in performing navigation calculations over long distances. Early explorers had to use local landmarks and the stars to navigate. This made it very difficult to travel to far or unknown destinations. Compasses were one of the key breakthroughs that made such voyages a reality. So how does a compass work?
A compass works by detecting the Earth’s natural magnetic fields. The Earth has an iron core that is part liquid and part solid crystal due to gravitational pressure. It is believed that movement in the liquid outer core is what produces the Earth’s magnetic field. Like all magnetic fields the Earth’s magnetic field has two main poles, a north and south pole. These magnetic poles are slightly off from the Earth’s axis rotation which is used as the basis of the geographic poles, but they are close enough that the general directions with adjustments for the polar difference, called a declination, can be used for navigation.
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Essentially a compass is a light weight magnet, generally a magnetized needle, on a free rotating pivot. This allows the needle to better react to nearby magnetic fields. Since opposites attract the southern pole of the needle is attracted to the Earth’s natural magnetic north pole. This is how navigators are able to discern north. The Earliest compasses were water compasses invented by the Chinese during the Song dynasty. These were a magnetized piece of metal floating in a bowl of water. The water provides the first frictionless pivot needed for making a working compass.
The compass later came into common use in the west during the 14th century AD. This led to what is now known as the Age of Exploration where major European powers started further exploration of the World including North and South America. While the compass was just one of the devices that brought about this golden age of exploration it played an important part in bring it to pass. Even now modern navigation to some point still relies on compasses and the more accurate maps they helped to develop.
We have written many articles about the compass for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the inventions of Galileo, and here’s an article about bar magnets.
We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about Magnetism. Listen here, Episode 42: Magnetism Everywhere.