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“New Chart for the Understanding of Mariner Instruments,” ca. 1740, The Mariners’ Museum.

Compass and The Compass Rose

There were many devices in different parts of the world before 1200 which pointed north. Some were lodestones (magnetic rock) suspended by a string, others were lodestones floating on a piece of wood, some were magnetized needles (magnetized by the lodestone) which floated on a straw and pointed north, or were magnetized needles which were suspended by a string. However, the first people to make a practical compass, that is, a magnetized needle supporting a compass card showing four or eight points of direction, seemed to be the Venetians in 1274. It was likely a valuable trade secret, so they didn't tell anyone. But after the year 1311, pictures showing maritime subjects all have a compass featured in them. Before that year, there are no pictures. The Chinese had used a lodestone for thousands of years, but it doesn't seem to be used for finding direction at sea. Those who did use a lodestone or magnetized needle did not have a compass card attached to it.

Before the modern compass came into use, land based traders, sailors and ordinary people had various ways of referring to direction when asked where they came from or where going to. They might say they were going towards a large mountain, or the sea, or the rising sun.

Some of the earliest directions we have are from the Phoenicians, a sea-going trading people who lived in what we now call Lebanon on the eastern side of the Mediterranean Sea. They were important and powerful business people from about 1200 BCE to about 200 BCE. These mariners, when they were at home in the eastern part of the Mediterranean were asked where they went to trade their cargoes. Wanting to be somewhat accurate, they replied they were going toward the setting sun. In their language, it looked like the word, Ereb. Similarly, when they were in the western Mediterranean and were asked where they came from, the most logical answer was, The land of the rising sun, Asu. In time, other people heard these words and turned them into Europe, which is to the west of Phoenician cities, and into Asia, the land to the east of Phoenicia.

The Phoenician peoples, especially those who had settled in the North African city they named Carthage, were eventually defeated by the Romans for control of trade in the Mediterranean. It was now the turn of the Romans to name directions in Latin instead of the Phoenician language. Even though the Romans were noted for their writing of great stories, plays, histories and biographies, when it came to naming directions, they didn't do much better than the Phoenicians…it just sounded better in Latin. They called the land on the eastern Mediterranean the land of the rising sun, and in Latin that gives us the Orient. The land of the setting sun gave us the Occident; both names are common in English for the Eastern and Western Hemispheres of the earth. Today, we refer to China, Japan and other countries in the eastern part of Asia as the Orient.

The Romans also gave us two other navigational tools related to direction and position finding. They named a grid system for their maps to measure distances east and west, north and south. Because the Mediterranean is a relatively long sea, east to west, but not very wide, north to south, they named the east-west direction the long direction and the north to south direction the wide direction. This doesn't sound too exciting or adventuresome in English, but in Latin it comes out pretty nicely: Longitude measures east-west, Latitude measures north-south…the Latin equivalent for the English words for long and wide. Yes, our word long comes directly from the Latin.

The discussion now comes to how these are put together in developing the compass and naming the directions we use today.

At first all people had was a magnetic rock called a lodestone which would point to the north magnetic pole of the earth. Being a rock, it was suspended from a string, or, placed on a piece of wood and floated in a bowl of water. At sea, there is a lot of ship's motion, so the technique of floating it on wood in a bowl of water was preferred; dangling from a string meant it was more difficult to have it settle down and point. At first, the Europeans who used it weren't interested in North-South-East-and West. In fact they hadn't invented those terms, yet. They used their lodestone to determine the wind direction. Knowing that, they could figure out how to steer to get to their destination; sailing was usually done with the wind blowing you in the direction you wanted to go…and only in that direction. They named the winds as the direction from which they came. That system is still used today. A north wind blows from the north, not toward it. The names of the winds, and the letters used to abbreviate that direction in early compasses:

T Tramontana North
G Greco Northeast
+ Levante East (note, the symbol is a "cross". See text.
S Sirocco Southeast
O Ostro South
L Libeccio Southwest
P Ponente West
M Maestro Northwest

Notice these directions are the eight major points of a compass going clockwise around from North. In time, the Mediterranean sailors had these divided into 32 points of their compass to provide even more details as to direction. Until the 1700's though, the 32 points were detailed enough, so they stopped. They did not divide it into 360 degrees until the 1800's. When they did, they decided to also keep the point system at the same time, and determined that each of the 32 points was equal to 11 1/4 degrees under the new system. So if you changed your course at sea by four points, you were changing it by 45 degrees.

But the 32 points did remind sailors of a certain flower, so the directions on the compass card were called the compass rose…they looked like the petals of a rose.

When the first compasses come in to use in the Mediterranean, the directions were named for the wind direction. In time, this changed under the influence of Northern European sailors into the North, South, East, West directions we are familiar with today. There is one hold-over. When the French were making compasses in the 1300's, they used a very fancy letter "T" to mark the North Wind…Tramontana. It looked like the lily flower, in French, Fleur de Lis. To this day, the fancy design often marking the direction of North on a compass, the Fleur de Lis, is the reminder of this older time when directions were named for the winds.

The Northern Europeans developed their own names for directions, but they didn't seem to do much better than the Phoenicians or Romans. They named the direction of sunrise from the Greek word for dawn, eos. In time, this becomes east. At noon, the direction toward the sun would be the sunne direction. This becomes south as people change their pronunciation of the word. In Europe, at least, the sun is always south of you at noon. The Latin word for evening is vespers, a word we still use for evening prayer services in certain Christian churches. In Latin, the first v is pronounced like a w, so it would sound like wespers. It's easy to see how that becomes west over time.

Finally, to the Scandinavians who are developing these directions, the land to the north of them was a place of cold, storms and terrible weather. In their time, hell was not a hot place, but one of freezing cold. So they called north the hell direction. They used the Greek word, nerteros. This changes to nord and eventually our word north.

The directions on a modern compass are combinations of these four points of the compass. There are many interesting ways of remembering these directions: the word NEWS or the more colorful phrase, "Never Eat Squishy Worms". Below is a diagram. You'll notice the points half way between two other major points take their name. For example, half-way between North and East is North East. Half Way between North and North East is North North East. If you wanted to sound sailorly, you would pronounce this, "Nor, Nor Eas".