First Compass Button for link to Chinese version of this page

The First Compass. The compass, a tool for identifying directions relative to the Earth’s magnetic fields, which happen to correspond to its spin, and thus, its astronomical orientation, is one of the four great Chinese inventions (the other three are paper, the movable type printing press, and gunpowder). The period of the warring states (475 B.C. to 221 B.C.) welcomed the earliest use of the compass, or at least the earliest time for which there are records indicating its use. At that time, the compass was designed as a ladle of magnetized metal balanced on an engraved position plate so that the ladle could easily pivot and spin in a such a way that the handle would always point toward the earth’s southern magnetic pole. The early name for this instrument was si nan (司南), or “south pointer.” More than a thousand years later, during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), a more modern form of compass was developed, called a zhr nan zhen (指南針), which literally means “the south-pointing needle.” Of course people knew the directions of south and north before the invention of the compass by observing the path of stars and the sun, but the compass performs in all weather. The compass was an important invention supporting navigation and international, long-distance trade.

Alexander Neckham and Guyot de Provins reported early versions of a compass being used in the late twelfth century and the early thirteenth centuries in Europe, but whether this was an independent invention or something picked up and passed along from China isn’t clear.

Links about the First Compass:
  1. Page 762 of Medieval Italy: An Encyclopedia by Christopher Kleinhenz describes the early use of the compass in Europe, and is available for viewing with Google Books.
  2. Susan Silverman's description of early compass use at the Smith Collage museum website.
  3. A very fine short article on Chinese inventions at Webster University (one of the historylines collaborators is a graduate of Webster) describes the compass.
  4. A cute little web site in Chinese language that describes early compass inventions and use in China.
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