Joseph Needham wrote in his book “Navigation” that the lodestone compass, also known as the magnetic compass, was mentioned in the “Book of the Devil Valley Master” in as early as 4 BC and in the “book of the Master Han Fei” in the third century BC. Shen Kua mentioned it in his book ”Dream Pool Essays” in 1086. There were other recorded Chinese usage of the compass for navigation in 1124, 1126. Without a doubt, the origin of the compass dates back several thousands of years and is a tool that has been used through the ages.
The Chinese Compass
The Chinese were leaders in quality steel production at that early period in human history. The Chinese called the compass the”south pointer” as the Chinese compass points south rather than North as we know it to do today.
Origin of the compass as a guide
The magnetic compass was first invented as a device for divination as early as the Chinese Han Dynasty (since about 206 BC). The compass was used in Song Dynasty China by the military for navigational orienteering by 1040–44, and was used for maritime navigation by 1111 to 1117 AD.
There is a story about a shepherd named Magnes whose shoe got stuck to a rock containing magnetite. I remember being taught that the Greeks discovered naturally occurring magnets of magnetite in Turkey. Magnetite occurs all over the world, but there are especially large deposits in Scandinavia. The Vikings invented the first practical magnetic compass and used it extensively in their travels to colonize or in war. This enabled them to cross oceans to reach the new world and to invade England at will, even in the dense fog. The Vikings kept the existence of the magnetic compass a secret.
After commercial trade with China was started by the Italians, especially after Marco Polo’s trip, the magnetic compass was introduced to the rest of Europe. This made possible the exploration of the oceans by the Europeans, although the Norsemen had a monopoly for almost 500 years and thus a big head start.
Today all ships, large and small, use magnetic compasses to navigate. The mineral magnetite is an iron oxide that is easily magnetized when it forms. Magnetite is also known as Lodestone. The compass gives navigators something very important: a fixed point. If you have a fixed point you know in what direction you’re going. If you know that, you can know where you are headed.