Everyone has seen a compass at least once in their lives, right? Typically small enough to be handheld, compasses are usually in the shape of a circle and have the cardinal directions marked out as well as markings for the equal divisions (Northeast, Southeast, Southwest, and Northwest). We’re all familiar with it, but would it surprise you that the first compass looked nothing like the modern version and was used for something completely different?
The first magnetic compass was invented during the Qin Dynasty of China. It featured a bronze plate with the markings for the directions, symbols linking the directions to ancient Chinese markings, and a large circle in the middle. The bronze plate represented Earth while the circle in the middle represent Heaven. A ladle would be carved out of lodestone, a form of magnetite that acts as a permanent magnet, to represent the constellation Ursa Major. Those of you versed in astronomy will know that the collection of stars known as “Big Dipper” resides in Ursa Major……poetic, right?
Because of the properties of lodestone, the handle of the ladle would always point South and the bowl would point North. As such, this compass was primarily used in the art of divination and fortune telling through the use of geomancy (interpretation of lines and geographical alignment as divine symbols). It was also important in establishing feng shui.
It wouldn’t be for many years that the Chinese would later develop a smaller compass for sailors to use to navigate the seas. This compass was made with a bowl of water and a wooden fish. The wooden fish would contain a needle that had been magnetized by rubbing it against a piece of lodestone. The fish would then always point North and this allowed sailors to reliably establish the cardinal directions instead of relying on landmarks and hand-drawn maps to find their way across the open waters.
Around the 1100’s we begin to see the Chinese compass spreading across the World. It is believed that the Chinese showed their technology to Middle Easterners who then introduced it to the Europeans. The Europeans would continue to develop the compass and it would start to take shape into what we recognize as the compass today.