From the Compass to GPS



9 Questions

What was the tool available to navigators at the time of Christopher Columbus?

What was the first radio direction finder prototype installed on?

Which Nobel Prize winner invented automatic valves designed to be used in combination with gas accumulators in lighthouses?

What is the long-range navigation system developed by the Radiation Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1940 called?

Which satellite navigation system is similar to GPS and began operating in 1982?

What is the name of the first prototype Navstar GPS satellite and when was it put into orbit?

What is the name of the satellite navigation system developed by the European Space Agency?

What is the tool accurate to one minute of arc described by Pierre Vernier in 1631?

What is the breakthrough invention for the accurate determination of longitude by John Harrison?


The intersection of history and navigation has been a long and complex one, with many civilizations and cultures developing their own methods of seafaring and navigation. The Austronesians, Harappans, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Indians, Norse, Chinese, Venetians, Genoese, Hanseatic Germans, Portuguese, Spanish, English, French, Dutch, and Danes all excelled as seafarers. Navigation in the Indo-Pacific began with the maritime migrations of the Austronesians, who used tools such as star navigation and observation of birds to detect nearby land. In the Mediterranean, sailors used techniques such as celestial navigation, and the Minoans of Crete used architectural features to align with the rising sun on the equinoxes. The Phoenicians and Carthaginians were particularly adept sailors, and used tools such as sounding weights to determine their location. The Arab Empire contributed significantly to navigation, using a magnetic compass and a rudimentary instrument known as a kamal, while the Vikings used polarization and the Sunstone to locate the Sun even in an overcast sky. China developed the magnetic compass for navigation, while nautical charts called portolan charts began to appear in Italy at the end of the 13th century. The commercial activities of Portugal in the early 15th century marked an epoch of distinct progress in practical navigation for Europeans, leading to the discovery of new islands and a network of ocean routes covering the Atlantic, Indian, and western Pacific oceans.A Brief History of Navigation

  • The earliest known maritime route-maps are the Roteiros, which were used to record observations made during explorations of the African coast and open seas of the south Atlantic.

  • Portuguese explorers adapted their routes to the season of departure, showing an understanding of the cycle of yearly variations in winds and currents in the southern Atlantic.

  • The Treaty of Tordesillas was negotiated in 1494, which moved the line of demarcation 270 leagues to the west and affirmed the Portuguese claim to Brazil and its dominance of the Atlantic.

  • By the early 16th century, regular voyages between Lisbon and the Indian Ocean were established, and a group of remarkable men, including João de Castro and Pedro Nunes, were established around the academic Pedro Nunes.

  • João de Castro's research on terrestrial magnetism in the Atlantic and Indian oceans was celebrated.

  • The Spanish Crown sponsored the first expedition of world circumnavigation in 1521, which led to trade flourishing across the Atlantic Ocean between Spain and America and across the Pacific Ocean between Asia-Pacific and Mexico via the Philippines.

  • The compass, cross-staff or astrolabe, and rudimentary nautical charts were the tools available to navigators at the time of Christopher Columbus.

  • In 1577, a more advanced technique for judging a ship's speed was mentioned: the chip log.

  • Accurate time-keeping is necessary for the determination of longitude, and the most accurate clocks available to early navigators were water clocks and sand clocks.

  • In 1631, Pierre Vernier described his newly invented quadrant that was accurate to one minute of arc.

  • The marine chronometer, invented by John Harrison, was a highly important breakthrough for the accurate determination of longitude.

  • Radios, in the form of wireless telegraphs, began to appear on ships at sea in 1891.Evolution of Navigation Technology

  • The first radio direction finder prototype was installed on the naval collier Lebanon in 1906.

  • Time signals were sent to ships for checking their chronometers in 1904, and navigational warnings were being sent by the U.S. Navy Hydrographic Office in 1907.

  • Lighthouses and buoys were installed near the shore to act as marine signposts, identifying hazards and pointing to safe channels for ships approaching some part of a coast after a long sea voyage.

  • Nils Gustaf Dalén won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1912 for his invention of automatic valves designed to be used in combination with gas accumulators in lighthouses.

  • The first radiobeacon was installed in 1921.

  • The first prototype shipborne radar system was installed on the USS Leary in April 1937.

  • LORAN (long-range navigation system) was developed by the Radiation Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1940 and put into operation on November 1, 1942.

  • TRANSIT satellite navigation system was developed in March 1958, and the first satellite was placed in polar orbit in 1960, consisting of seven satellites.

  • The first prototype Navstar GPS satellite was put into orbit on July 14, 1974.

  • GLONASS, a satellite navigation system similar to GPS, began operating in 1982 and is expected to have a complete 24-satellite constellation by 2010.

  • The European Space Agency expects to have its Galileo with 30 satellites in place by 2011–12.

  • Electronic integrated bridge concepts are driving future navigation system planning.


Test your knowledge of the evolution of navigation technology with our quiz! From the earliest methods of seafaring to the modern GPS and satellite systems, this quiz covers the tools and techniques used by sailors and navigators throughout history. See how much you know about the compass, astrolabe, marine chronometer, radios, and more. Don't miss out on the chance to explore the fascinating history of navigation and test your skills!

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