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Navigational instruments of the past

Navigational instruments of the past

Several ingenious instruments have been invented over the centuries to help in navigating the seas.

History

Keywords

navigation, orientation, shipping, calendar stone, compass, quadrant, astrolabe, astronomy, discovery, explorer, ships, Sun, Polaris, magnetic field, North Magnetic Pole, protractor, horizont, degree scale, scale, geometry, refraction, watercraft, mathematics, seas, history, Middle Ages, modern history

Related items

Scenes

Navigational instruments

  • sunstone - A light refracting crystal, suitable for determining the position of the Sun.
  • Chinese naval compass - An instrument using the magnetic field strength of Earth to determine directions.
  • quadrant - An instrument used to measure angles.
  • astrolabe - An instrument that allows the user to perform various quick astronomical calculations.

The English word "navigation" comes from the Latin verb "navigare" meaning "to sail". This activity involves two main tasks: determining one's current location and following a planned route.

It is no coincidence that the origin of the word is related to maritime travel. While there may be a relatively large number of landmarks for travelers on land, maritime travelers can only rely on them while sailing along the coasts.

For a long period of time, early sailors navigated the open seas relying on the position of the Sun, known sea currents and the direction of migration of animals.

It was not until the Middle Ages that the first navigational instruments appeared, making it possible to determine one's current location relatively accurately. Of course, their operation continued to be based on the position of celestial bodies, the only 'permanent' points of reference.

Viking sunstone

According to the most recent research, medieval Viking sailors may have relied on a special crystal to navigate the seas: Iceland spar, a transparent, birefractive variety of calcite. When light enters a birefractive crystal, it splits into two polarised beams. The two beams reaching the back surface of the crystal do not split further, thus two beams exit the crystal and continue to travel on parallel paths. This causes objects viewed through a piece of calcite crystal to appear doubled.

Thanks to this property, Vikings were able to locate the Sun in the sky even in overcast conditions, which were quite common in their homeland.

The sunstone had to be calibrated first. In cloudless weather, the navigator watched the sky through the sunstone and rotated it in front of his eyes until the spot in the sky he was examining appeared at its brightest. Then he engraved an arrow pointing towards the Sun on the crystal's surface. In cloudy or foggy weather, he also looked for the brightest orientation of the crystal, since the engraved arrow showed the direction of the Sun. Based on readings in two different points in the sky, the navigator drew circles passing through these points. The Sun was located at the intersection of these two circles.

According to some scientists, used together with other instruments (solar compass, shadow stick), sunstones could make it possible for sailors to determine their location even after sunset.

Compass

  • box
  • vertical axis
  • magnetic needle - A freely moving needle that always points towards the magnetic north pole.

The operation of the compass is based on the magnetic field strength of the Earth. Compasses are used to determine the direction of the magnetic north pole. (The magnetic steel needle always points North.)

The first compasses appeared in ancient China, where they were used for land navigation. They were introduced to Europe by Arab merchants who traveled around the then-known world. They were developed into their present form in Europe.

These instruments were encased in a box in which a magnetic needle attached to a vertical axis could rotate freely. Compasses were usually fitted on the centre line of ships, which was marked with a line on the box.

Compasses were inaccurate on undulating seas, therefore a suspension was developed in the 16th century, which kept the axis in a vertical position continuously. Later, additional markings were made on the box, for measuring angles.

Quadrant

  • quadrant plate - The quadrant received its name because its shape is a quarter of a circle.
  • plumb line - A weight, usually made of lead, attached to a cord. It always shows the direction perpendicular to the Earth' surface.
  • scale - The quarter circle is marked in degrees from 0º to 90º.

The quadrant took its name from its shape, a quarter of a circle. Used for determining the apparent altitude of stars, this instrument is practically a protractor. The first quadrants date back to ancient times.

The operation of this instrument was described in detail as early as the 2nd century by Claudius Ptolemy, a polymath who lived in Alexandria, Egypt.

Numerous versions of quadrants have been developed throughout the centuries. The quadrant used for maritime navigation is also known as a geometric quadrant. Sailors used the instrument to determine the geographical latitude of any location.

The side of the quadrant to which sights were attached was turned in the direction of the North Star, or Polaris. (The brightest star in the constellation of Ursa Minor is close to the north celestial pole). Thus, the angle between the chosen direction and the apparent horizon is equal to the angle between the plumb line perpendicular to the surface of the Earth and the other side of the instrument (they are both perpendicular angles). The pointer of the plumb line marked the geographical latitude of the given location on the scale. Thus, sailors sailing northwards or southwards could find the circle of latitude they looked for.

Astrolabe

  • mater (base plate) - The body of the instrument engraved with markings. Its front side is deep enough to hold one or more flat plates.
  • degree scale
  • tympanum - A disk-shaped plate, the removable part of the instrument. It is engraved with the coordinate lines of the horizontal and the equatorial coordinate systems, with the northern pole in the center.
  • rete (plate) - A plate that can be rotated around the center of the instrument. Hook pointers mark the position of the brightest stars. The ecliptic circle is also included on it. (Ecliptic: the Sun's apparent annual path on the sky.)
  • alidade (rule with sights) - It is similar to a watch hand. It makes it possible to measure the altitude of celestial bodies above horizon and to read off the altitude in degrees on the scale around the edge of the astrolabe.
  • nomogram - A graphical calculating diagram. In case of multivariable functions, this instrument can also be used to calculate associated values.

The astrolabe makes it possible to perform various quick astronomical calculations.

According to some researchers, its origins can be traced back to ancient Greece, while other researchers attribute it to medieval Arab scholars. It is however a fact that the mathematical and astronomical knowledge required to develop this instrument were available to scientists already in the centuries before Christ's birth.

Astrolabes were used – relatively accurately – to determine the local time given the geographical latitude and the date. This worked the other way round as well: given a date and time, one could determine the geographical latitude of any place.

This instrument was fairly difficult to use at sea. This was partly because an observer had to look directly into the Sun and partly because the swaying of the vessel made it difficult to set the horizon line, which increased the inaccuracy of the instrument.

Animation

  • Viking longship - The Vikings were masters of shipbuilding. Since ships were indispensable for trade, conquests and exploration, it is understandable that Vikings treasured their ships equipped with sails and oars.
  • north magnetic pole
  • junk - One of the world's oldest types of sailing vessel. Throughout history, various types of vessels have been developed. One of these is the Cantonese junk.
  • Polaris
  • apparent horizon
  • plumb line
  • Santa Maria - Christopher Columbus' three-masted carrack was the flagship of his first, landmark voyage.
  • α

The English word "navigation" comes from the Latin verb "navigare" meaning "to sail". This activity involves two main tasks: determining one's current location and following a planned route.

It is no coincidence that the origin of the word is related to maritime travel. While there may be a relatively large number of landmarks for travelers on land, maritime travelers can only rely on them while sailing along the coasts.

According to the most recent research, medieval Viking sailors may have relied on a special crystal to navigate the seas: Iceland spar, a transparent, birefractive variety of calcite. Thanks to this property, Vikings were able to locate the Sun in the sky even in overcast conditions, which were quite common in their homeland.

The operation of the compass is based on the magnetic field strength of the Earth. Compasses are used to determine the direction of the magnetic north pole.

The first compasses appeared in ancient China, where they were used for land navigation. They were introduced to Europe by Arab merchants who traveled around the then-known world. They were developed into their present form in Europe.

The quadrant took its name from its shape, a quarter of a circle. Used for determining the apparent altitude of stars, this instrument is practically a protractor. The first quadrants date back to ancient times.

Numerous versions of quadrants have been developed throughout the centuries. The quadrant used for maritime navigation is also known as a geometric quadrant. Sailors used the instrument to determine the geographical latitude of any location.

The astrolabe makes it possible to perform various quick astronomical calculations.

According to some researchers, its origins can be traced back to ancient Greece, while other researchers attribute it to medieval Arab scholars.

Astrolabes were used – relatively accurately – to determine the local time given the geographical latitude and the date. This worked the other way round as well: given a date and time, one could determine the geographical latitude of any place.

Narration

The English word "navigation" comes from the Latin verb "navigare" meaning "to sail". This activity involves two main tasks: determining one's current location and following a planned route.

It is no coincidence that the origin of the word is related to maritime travel. While there may be a relatively large number of landmarks for travelers on land, maritime travelers can only rely on them while sailing along the coasts.

According to the most recent research, medieval Viking sailors may have relied on a special crystal to navigate the seas: Iceland spar, a transparent, birefractive variety of calcite. Thanks to this property, Vikings were able to locate the Sun in the sky even in overcast conditions, which were quite common in their homeland.

The operation of the compass is based on the magnetic field strength of the Earth. Compasses are used to determine the direction of the magnetic north pole.

The first compasses appeared in ancient China, where they were used for land navigation. They were introduced to Europe by Arab merchants who traveled around the then-known world. They were developed into their present form in Europe.

The quadrant took its name from its shape, a quarter of a circle. Used for determining the apparent altitude of stars, this instrument is practically a protractor. The first quadrants date back to ancient times.

Numerous versions of quadrants have been developed throughout the centuries. The quadrant used for maritime navigation is also known as a geometric quadrant. Sailors used the instrument to determine the geographical latitude of any location.

The astrolabe makes it possible to perform various quick astronomical calculations.

According to some researchers, its origins can be traced back to ancient Greece, while other researchers attribute it to medieval Arab scholars.

Astrolabes were used – relatively accurately – to determine the local time given the geographical latitude and the date. This worked the other way round as well: given a date and time, one could determine the geographical latitude of any place.

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