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Topic – How Compasses Changed the World

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How Compasses Changed the World

The compass was invented more than 2000 years ago. But it took more than 1000 years before it was used for finding directions and navigation. But a compass is a device that shows people where magnetic north is! So why was it invented if not for navigation? How was it first used?

Marvellous Magnets

An early form of the compass was created by Chinese inventors around 250 BCE. They used the device to help them align buildings and furniture according to the environment and forces of nature. This technique is called feng shui (you say it like this: foong schway) and is still used today.

These early compasses were built using lodestone, which is a mineral that lines up with Earth’s magnetic field. Some experts believe the ancient Olmec people of Mexico might have used lodestones in a similar way to the Chinese, but 750 years earlier.

Eventually, someone realized that the lodestones were better at showing real directions, and that led to them being used as compasses. The pointing needle was a spoon-shaped piece of lodestone, set on a stone slab marked with some constellations and the points of the compass (north, south, east, west, and points between them). The handle of the spoon always pointed south.

The Compass Takes Off

More than 1200 years ago, people figured out how to magnetize iron needles and these replaced the lodestone. These newer compasses were more accurate and portable, and could finally begin to be used by travellers and explorers.

Before they had compasses, people navigated by the position of the Sun during the day and the movement of the stars at night. Obviously, this did not work very well in stormy weather or when clouds filled the sky. Sailors had to keep the shore in sight so they could see landmarks, or they risked getting lost.

Compasses made it possible for explorers to sail far out into oceans and away from land—no matter what the weather was like. This led to more exploration, the discovery of new countries, and trade with other cultures. Compasses also helped ships stay on course, which was important for explorers who were trying to return home.

Compasses in Modern Times

The world-famous scientist Albert Einstein often spoke about how he had been fascinated by compasses when he was a little boy. The movement of the needle amazed him, and he and other scientists investigated magnetism, which has led to many scientific discoveries.

Although many people still use compasses, in the late 1900s, people began using the Global Positioning System (GPS) to get around. It uses position and time information from satellites circling Earth to provide directions.

Fun Facts

  The four main points marked on a compass—north, south, east, west—are called cardinal points.

  A modern hand-held compass uses a magnetized needle inside a small container filled with fluid. The fluid is often oil, kerosene, or alcohol. The fluid helps the needle remain steady.

  During World War II, British pilots carried secret tools that they could use to escape if they were captured. The tools were hidden in everyday objects. Small compasses were hidden in boots, pens, and even buttons!


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