A simple dry magnetic pocket compass
A smartphone that can be used as a compass thanks to the Magnetometer inside

A compass is a navigational instrument that shows directions in a frame of reference that is stationary relative to the surface of the earth. The frame of reference defines the four cardinal directions (or points) – north, south, east, and west. Intermediate directions are also defined. Usually, a diagram called a compass rose, which shows the directions (with their names usually abbreviated to initials), is marked on the compass. When the compass is in use, the rose is aligned with the real directions in the frame of reference, so, for example, the "N" mark on the rose really points to the north. Frequently, in addition to the rose or sometimes instead of it, angle markings in degrees are shown on the compass. North corresponds to zero degrees, and the angles increase clockwise, so east is 90 degrees, south is 180, and west is 270. These numbers allow the compass to show azimuths or bearings, which are commonly stated in this notation.

There are two widely used and radically different types of compass. The magnetic compass contains a magnet that interacts with the earth's magnetic field and aligns itself to point to the magnetic poles. The gyro compass (sometimes spelled with a hyphen, or as one word) contains a rapidly spinning wheel whose rotation interacts dynamically with the rotation of the earth so as to make the wheel precess, losing energy to friction until its axis of rotation is parallel with the earth's.

The magnetic compass was invented during the Chinese Han Dynasty between the 2nd century BC and 1st century AD,[1] and was used for navigation by the 11th century.[2] The compass was introduced to medieval Europe 150 years later,[2] where the dry compass was invented around 1300.[3] This was supplanted in the early 20th century by the liquid-filled magnetic compass.[4]


Types of compasses

There are two widely used and radically different types of compass. The magnetic compass contains a magnet that interacts with the earth's magnetic field and aligns itself to point to the magnetic poles.[5] Simple compasses of this type show directions in a frame of reference in which the directions of the magnetic poles are due north and south. These directions are called magnetic north and magnetic south. The gyro compass (sometimes spelled with a hyphen, or as one word) contains a rapidly spinning wheel whose rotation interacts dynamically with the rotation of the earth so as to make the wheel precess, losing energy to friction until its axis of rotation is parallel with the earth's. The wheel's axis therefore points to the earth's rotational poles, and a frame of reference is used in which the directions of the rotational poles are due north and south. These directions are called true north and true south, respectively.

There are other devices which are not conventionally called compasses but which do allow the true cardinal directions to be determined. They are said to work "like a compass", or "as a compass", without actually being a compass. For example, a Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite receiver determines its own position on the ground, as true latitude and true longitude. If the receiver is being moved, even at walking pace, it can follow the change of its position, and hence determine the compass bearing of its direction of movement, and thence the directions of the cardinal points relative to its direction of movement. Some GPS receivers have two antennas, fixed some distance apart to the structure of a vehicle, usually an aircraft. The exact latitudes and longitudes of the antennas can be determined simultaneously, which allows the directions of the cardinal points to be calculated relative to the heading of the aircraft (the direction in which its nose is pointing), rather than to its direction of movement, which will be different if there is a crosswind. A much older example was the Chinese south-pointing chariot, which worked like a compass by directional dead reckoning. It was initialized by hand, possibly using astronomical observations e.g. of the Pole Star, and thenceforth counteracted every turn that was made to keep its pointer aiming in the desired direction, usually to the south.

The earth's magnetic poles do not coincide with the rotational poles, and the positions of the magnetic poles change over time on a time-scale that is not extremely long by human standards. Significant movements happen in a few years. (Over millions of years, the directions of the true poles also shift, because of continental drift.) For an observer at any point on the earth's surface, there is an angle, called the magnetic declination (or magnetic variation), between the directions of magnetic north and true north. The magnetic declination is different at different points on the earth, and changes with time. Close to the equator, the magnetic declination is no more than a few degrees, but in arctic and Antarctic latitudes it can be much greater. Some magnetic compasses include means to compensate for the magnetic declination, so that the compass shows true directions, relative to the earth's rotational poles. The user of such a compass has to know the local value of the magnetic declination, and adjust the compass accordingly.

Magnetic compass

The magnetic compass consists of a magnetized pointer (usually marked on the North end) free to align itself with Earth's magnetic field. A compass is any magnetically sensitive device capable of indicating the direction of the magnetic north of a planet's magnetosphere. The face of the compass generally highlights the cardinal points of north, south, east and west. Often, compasses are built as a stand alone sealed instrument with a magnetized bar or needle turning freely upon a pivot, or moving in a fluid, thus able to point in a northerly and southerly direction.

The compass greatly improved the safety and efficiency of travel, especially ocean travel. A compass can be used to calculate heading, used with a sextant to calculate latitude, and with a marine chronometer to calculate longitude. It thus provides a much improved navigational capability that has only been recently supplanted by modern devices such as the Global Positioning System (GPS).

The compass was invented during the Chinese Han Dynasty between the 2nd century BC and 1st century AD.[1] The dry compass was invented in medieval Europe around 1300.[3] This was supplanted in the early 20th century by the liquid-filled magnetic compass.[4]

Other, more accurate devices have been invented for determining north that do not depend on the Earth's magnetic field for operation (known in such cases as true north, as opposed to magnetic north). A gyrocompass or astrocompass can be used to find true north, while being unaffected by stray magnetic fields, nearby electrical power circuits or nearby masses of ferrous metals. A recent development is the electronic compass, either a magnetometer or a fibre optic gyrocompass, which detects the magnetic directions without potentially fallible moving parts. A magnetometer frequently appears as an optional subsystem built into hand-held GPS receivers. However, magnetic compasses remain popular, especially in remote areas, as they are relatively inexpensive, durable, and require no power supply.[6]

How a magnetic compass works

A compass functions as a pointer to "magnetic north" because the magnetized needle at its heart aligns itself with the lines of the Earth's magnetic field. The magnetic field exerts a torque on the needle, pulling one end or pole of the needle toward the Earth's North magnetic pole, and the other toward the South magnetic pole. The needle is mounted on a low-friction pivot point, in better compasses a jewel bearing, so it can turn easily. When the compass is held level, the needle turns until, after a few seconds to allow oscillations to die out, one end points toward the North magnetic pole.

A magnet or compass needle's "north" pole is defined as the one which is attracted to the North magnetic pole of the Earth, in northern Canada. Since opposite poles attract ("north" to "south") the North magnetic pole of the Earth is actually the south pole of the Earth's magnetic field.[7][8][9] The compass needle's north pole is always marked in some way: with a distinctive color, luminous paint, or an arrowhead.

Instead of a needle, professional compasses usually have bar magnets glued to the underside of a disk pivoted in the center so it can turn, called a "compass card", with the cardinal points and degrees marked on it. Better compasses are "liquid-filled"; the chamber containing the needle or disk is filled with a liquid whose purpose is to damp the oscillations of the needle so it will settle down to point to North quicker, and also to protect the needle or disk from shock.

In navigation, directions on maps are expressed with reference to geographical or true north, the direction toward the Geographical North Pole, the rotation axis of the Earth. Since the Earth's magnetic poles are near, but are not at the same locations as its geographic poles, a compass does not point to true north. The direction a compass points is called magnetic north, the direction of the North magnetic pole. Depending on where the compass is located on the surface of the Earth the angle between true north and magnetic north, called magnetic declination can vary widely, increasing the farther one is from the prime meridian of the Earth's magnetic field. The local magnetic declination is given on most maps, to allow the map to be oriented with a compass parallel to true north.

In geographic regions near the magnetic poles, in northwestern Canada and Antarctica, variations in the Earth's magnetic field cause magnetic compasses to have such large errors that they are useless, so other instruments must be used for navigation.


The first compasses were made of lodestone, a naturally-magnetized ore of iron. Ancient people found that if a lodestone was suspended so it could turn freely, it would always point in the same direction (toward the magnetic poles). Later compasses were made of iron needles, magnetized by stroking them with a lodestone.

Navigation prior to the compass

Prior to the introduction of the compass, position, destination, and direction at sea were primarily determined by the sighting of landmarks, supplemented with the observation of the position of celestial bodies. On cloudy days, the Vikings may have used cordierite or some other birefringent crystal to determine the sun's direction and elevation from the polarization of daylight; their astronomical knowledge was sufficient to let them use this information to determine their proper heading.[10] For more southerly Europeans unacquainted with this technique, the invention of the compass enabled the determination of heading when the sky was overcast or foggy. This enabled mariners to navigate safely far from land, increasing sea trade, and contributing to the Age of Discovery.

Geomancy and feng shui

Magnetism was originally used, not for navigation, but for geomancy and fortune-telling by the Chinese. The earliest Chinese magnetic compasses were probably not designed for navigation, but rather to order and harmonize their environments and buildings in accordance with the geomantic principles of feng shui. These early compasses were made using lodestone, a special form of the mineral magnetite that aligns itself with the Earth’s magnetic field.[11]

Based on Krotser and Coe's discovery of an Olmec hematite artifact in Mesoamerica, radiocarbon dated to 1400-1000 BC, astronomer John Carlson has hypothesized that the Olmec might have used the geomagnetic lodestone earlier than 1000 BC for geomancy, a method of divination, which if proven true, predates the Chinese use of magnetism for feng shui by a millennium.[12] Carlson speculates that the Olmecs used similar artifacts as a directional device for astronomical or geomantic purposes but does not suggest navigational usage. The artifact is part of a polished hematite (lodestone) bar with a groove at one end (possibly for sighting). The artifact now consistently points 35.5 degrees west of north, but may have pointed north-south when whole. Carlson's claims have been disputed by other scientific researchers, who have suggested that the artifact is actually a constituent piece of a decorative ornament and not a purposely built compass.[13][14] Several other hematite or magnetite artifacts have been found at pre-Columbian archaeological sites in Mexico and Guatemala.[15][16]

Navigational compass

The invention of the navigational compass is credited by scholars to the ancient Chinese, who began using it for navigation sometime between the 9th and 11th century.[14] Europeans and Arabs were first introduced to the compass through nautical contacts during the Chinese Song Dynasty (960–1279).[14] Later the compass appeared in Europe, India, and the Middle East due to the formation of the Mongol Empire which effectly eliminated all previous national barriers within the empire and allowed the safe transfer and transportation of both people and intellectual knowledge across the silk road from China to Europe and the Middle East.


Model of a Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) south-indicating ladle or sinan. (Historical existence is disputed.)[17]

There is disagreement as to exactly when the compass was invented. These are noteworthy Chinese literary references in evidence for its antiquity:

  • The earliest Chinese literature reference to magnetism lies in the 4th century BC writings of Wang Xu (鬼谷子): "The lodestone attracts iron."[18] The book also notes that the people of the state of Zheng always knew their position by means of a "south-pointer"; some author suggest that this refers to early use of the compass, but it more likely corresponds to the south pointing chariot.[19]
  • The first mention of the attraction of a needle by a magnet is a Chinese work composed between 70 and 80 AD (Lunheng ch. 47): "A lodestone attracts a needle." "This passage of Louen-heng is the first Chinese text concerning the attraction of a needle by a magnet".[20] In 1948, the scholar Wang Chen-Tuo constructed a "compass" in the form of south-indicating spoon on the basis of this text. However, "there is no explicit mention of a magnet in the Louen-heng" and that "beforehand it needs to assume some hypotheses to arrive at such a conclusion."[17]
  • The earliest reference to a specific magnetic direction finder device is recorded in a Song Dynasty book dated to 1040-44. There is a description of an iron "south-pointing fish" floating in a bowl of water, aligning itself to the south. The device is recommended as a means of orientation "in the obscurity of the night." The Wujing Zongyao (武经总要, "Collection of the Most Important Military Techniques") stated: "When troops encountered gloomy weather or dark nights, and the directions of space could not be distinguished...they made use of the [mechanical] south-pointing carriage, or the south-pointing fish."[21] This was achieved by heating of metal (especially if steel), known today as thermoremanence, and would have been capable of producing a weak state of magnetization.[21] While the Chinese achieved magnetic remanence and induction by this time, a similar discovery was not made in Europe until about 1600, when William Gilbert published his De Magnete.[22]
  • The first incontestable reference to a magnetized needle in Chinese literature appears in 1088.[23] The Dream Pool Essays, written by the Song Dynasty polymath scientist Shen Kuo, contained a detailed description of how geomancers magnetized a needle by rubbing its tip with lodestone, and hung the magnetic needle with one single strain of silk with a bit of wax attached to the center of the needle. Shen Kuo pointed out that a needle prepared this way sometimes pointed south, sometimes north.
  • The earliest explicit recorded use of a magnetic compass for navigational purposes is found in Zhu Yu's book Pingzhou Table Talks (萍洲可談; Pingzhou Ketan) and dates from 1117:[14] The navigator knows the geography, he watches the stars at night, watches the sun at day; when it is dark and cloudy, he watches the compass.

Thus, the use of a magnetic compass as a direction finder occurred sometime before 1044, but incontestable evidence for the use of the compass as a navigational device did not appear until 1117.

The typical Chinese navigational compass was in the form of a magnetic needle floating in a bowl of water.[24] According to Needham, the Chinese in the Song Dynasty and continuing Yuan Dynasty did make use of a dry compass, although this type never became as widely used in China as the wet compass.[25] Evidence of this is found in the Shilin guangji ("Guide Through the Forest of Affairs"), published in 1325 by Chen Yuanjing, although its compilation had taken place between 1100 and 1250.[25] The dry compass in China was a dry suspension compass, a wooden frame crafted in the shape of a turtle hung upside down by a board, with the lodestone sealed in by wax, and if rotated, the needle at the tail would always point in the northern cardinal direction.[25] Although the European compass-card in box frame and dry pivot needle was adopted in China after its use was taken by Japanese pirates in the 16th century (who had in turn learned of it from Europeans),[26] the Chinese design of the suspended dry compass persisted in use well into the 18th century.[14][27] However, according to Kreutz there is only a single Chinese reference to a dry-mounted needle (built into a pivoted wooden tortoise) which is dated to between 1150 and 1250, and claims that there is no clear indication that Chinese mariners ever used anything but the floating needle in a bowl until the 16th-century.[24]

Diagram of a Ming Dynasty mariner's compass

The first recorded use of a 48 position mariner's compass on sea navigation was noted in a book titled “The Customs of Cambodia” by Yuan Dynasty diplomat Zhou Daguan, he described his 1296 voyage from Wenzhou to Angkor Thom in detail; when his ship set sail from Wenzhou, the mariner took a needle direction of “ding wei” position, which is equivalent to 22.5 degree SW. After they arrived at Baria[disambiguation needed ], the mariner took "Kun Shen needle", or 52.5 degree SW.[28] Zheng He's Navigation Map, also known as "The Mao Kun Map", contains a large amount of detail "needle records" of Zheng He's travel.[29]

There is a debate over the diffusion of the compass after its first appearance with the Chinese. At present, according to Kreutz, scholarly consensus is that the Chinese invention predates the first European mention by 150 years.[2] However, there are questions over diffusion, because of the apparent failure of the Arabs to function as possible intermediaries between East and West because of the earlier recorded appearance of the compass in Europe (1190)[30] than in the Muslim world (1232, 1242, and 1282).[31][32] The first European mention of a magnetized needle and its use among sailors occurs in Alexander Neckam's De naturis rerum (On the Natures of Things), probably written in Paris in 1190.[30] Other evidence for this includes the Arabic word for "Compass" (al-konbas), possibly being a derivation of the old Italian word for compass. In the Arab world, the earliest reference comes in The Book of the Merchants' Treasure, written by one Baylak al-Kibjaki in Cairo about 1282.[31] Since the author describes having witnessed the use of a compass on a ship trip some forty years earlier, some scholars are inclined to antedate its first appearance accordingly. There is also a slightly earlier non-Mediterranean Muslim reference to an iron fish-like compass in a Persian talebook from 1232.[32]

Medieval Europe

Pivoting compass needle in a 14th century copy of Epistola de magnete of Peter Peregrinus (1269)

In 1187 Alexander Neckam reported the use of a magnetic compass for the region of the English Channel.[33] In 1269 Petrus Peregrinus of Maricourt described a floating compass for astronomical purposes as well as a dry compass for seafaring, in his well-known Epistola de magnete.[33] In the Mediterranean, the introduction of the compass, at first only known as a magnetized pointer floating in a bowl of water,[34] went hand in hand with improvements in dead reckoning methods, and the development of Portolan charts, leading to more navigation during winter months in the second half of the 13th century.[35] While the practice from ancient times had been to curtail sea travel between October and April, due in part to the lack of dependable clear skies during the Mediterranean winter, the prolongation of the sailing season resulted in a gradual, but sustained increase in shipping movement; by around 1290 the sailing season could start in late January or February, and end in December.[36] The additional few months were of considerable economic importance. For instance, it enabled Venetian convoys to make two round trips a year to the Levant, instead of one.[37]

At the same time, traffic between the Mediterranean and northern Europe also increased, with first evidence of direct commercial voyages from the Mediterranean into the English Channel coming in the closing decades of the 13th century, and one factor may be that the compass made traversal of the Bay of Biscay safer and easier.[38] However, critics like Kreutz feel that it was later in 1410 that anyone really started steering by compass.[39]

Navigational sailor's compass rose.

At present, according to Kreutz, "barring the discovery of new evidence, it seems clear the first Chinese reference to" the compass "antedates any European mention by roughly 150 years."[2] However, there are questions over diffusion, because of the apparent failure of the Arabs to function as possible intermediaries between East and West because of the earlier recorded appearance of the compass in Europe (1190)[30] than in the Muslim world (1232, 1242, and 1282).[31][32] This is countered by evidence of the temporal proximity of the Chinese navigational compass (1117) to its first appearance in Europe (1190) and the common shape of the early compass as a magnetized needle floating in a bowl of water.[30]

Islamic world

The earliest reference to an iron fish-like compass in the Islamic world occurs in a Persian talebook from 1232.[32] This fish shape was from a typical early Chinese design.[14] The earliest Arabic reference to a compass - in the form of magnetic needle in a bowl of water - comes from the Yemeni sultan and astronomer Al-Ashraf in 1282.[31] He also appears to be the first to make use of the compass for astronomical purposes.[40] Since the author describes having witnessed the use of a compass on a ship trip some forty years earlier, some scholars are inclined to antedate its first appearance in the Arab world accordingly.[32]

In 1300, another Arabic treatise written by the Egyptian astronomer and muezzin Ibn Simʿūn describes a dry compass for use as a "Qibla (Kabba) indicator" to find the direction to Mecca. Like Peregrinus' compass, however, Ibn Simʿūn's compass did not feature a compass card.[33] In the 14th century, the Syrian astronomer and timekeeper Ibn al-Shatir (1304–1375) invented a timekeeping device incorporating both a universal sundial and a magnetic compass. He invented it for the purpose of finding the times of Salah prayers.[41] Arab navigators also introduced the 32-point compass rose during this time.[42]


The compass was used in India for navigational purposes and was known as the matsya yantra, because of the placement of a metallic fish in a cup of oil.[43]

Later developments

Dry compass

Early modern dry compass suspended by a gimbal (1570)

The dry mariner's compass was invented in Europe around 1300. The dry mariner's compass consists of three elements: A freely pivoting needle on a pin enclosed in a little box with a glass cover and a wind rose, whereby "the wind rose or compass card is attached to a magnetized needle in such a manner that when placed on a pivot in a box fastened in line with the keel of the ship the card would turn as the ship changed direction, indicating always what course the ship was on".[3] Later, compasses were often fitted into a gimbal mounting to reduce grounding of the needle or card when used on the pitching and rolling deck of a ship.

While pivoting needles in glass boxes had already been described by the French scholar Peter Peregrinus in 1269,[44] and by the Egyptian scholar Ibn Simʿūn in 1300,[33] traditionally Flavio Gioja (fl. 1302), an Italian pilot from Amalfi, has been credited with perfecting the sailor's compass by suspending its needle over a compass card, thus giving the compass its familiar appearance.[45] Such a compass with the needle attached to a rotating card is also described in a commentary on Dante's Divine Comedy from 1380, while an earlier source refers to a portable compass in a box (1318),[46] supporting the notion that the dry compass was known in Europe by then.[24]

Bearing compass

Bearing compass (18th century).

A bearing compass is a magnetic compass mounted in such a way that it allows the taking of bearings of objects by aligning them with the lubber line of the bearing compass.[47] A surveyor's compass is a specialized compass made to accurately measure heading of landmarks and measure horizontal angles to help with map making. These were already in common use by the early 18th century and are described in the 1728 Cyclopaedia. The bearing compass was steadily reduced in size and weight to increase portability, resulting in a model that could be carried and operated in one hand. In 1885, a patent was granted for a hand compass fitted with a viewing prism and lens that enabled the user to accurately sight the heading of geographical landmarks, thus creating the prismatic compass.[48] Another sighting method was by means of a reflective mirror. First patented in 1902, the Bézard compass consisted of a field compass with a mirror mounted above it.[49][50] This arrangement enabled the user to align the compass with an objective while simultaneously viewing its bearing in the mirror.[49][51]

In 1928, Gunnar Tillander, a Swedish unemployed instrument maker and avid participant in the sport of orienteering, invented a new style of bearing compass. Dissatisfied with existing field compasses, which required a separate protractor in order to take bearings from a map, Tillander decided to incorporate both instruments into a single instrument. His design featured a metal compass capsule containing a magnetic needle with orienting marks in its base, fitted into a baseplate marked with a lubber line (later called a direction of travel indicator). By rotating the capsule to align the needle with the orienting marks, the course bearing could be read at the lubber line. Moreover, by aligning the baseplate with a course drawn on a map - ignoring the needle - the compass could also function as a protractor. Tillander took his design to fellow orienteers Björn and Alvar Kjellström, who were selling basic compasses, and the three modified Tillander's design. In December 1932, the Silva Company was formed, and the three men began manufacturing and selling their Silva compass to Swedish orienteers, outdoorsmen, and army officers.[52][53][54]

Liquid compass

A flush mount compass on a boat

The liquid compass is a design in which the magnetized needle or card is damped by fluid to protect against excessive swing or wobble, improving readability while reducing wear. A rudimentary working model of a liquid compass was introduced by Sir Edmund Halley at a meeting of the Royal Society in 1690.[55] However, as early liquid compasses were fairly cumbersome and heavy, and subject to damage, their main advantage was aboard ship. Protected in a binnacle and normally gimbal-mounted, the liquid inside the compass housing effectively damped shock and vibration, while eliminating excessive swing and grounding of the card caused by the pitch and roll of the vessel. The first liquid mariner's compass believed practicable for limited use was patented by the Englishman Francis Crow in 1813.[56][57] Liquid-damped marine compasses for ships and small boats were occasionally used by the British Royal Navy from the 1830s through 1860, but the standard Admiralty compass remained a dry-mount type.[58] In the latter year, the American physicist and inventor Edward Samuel Ritchie patented a greatly improved liquid marine compass that was adopted in revised form for general use by the U.S. Navy, and later purchased by the Royal Navy as well.[59]

Despite these advances, the liquid compass was not introduced generally into the Royal Navy until 1908. An early version developed by RN Captain Creak proved to be operational under heavy gunfire and seas, but was felt to lack navigational precision compared with the design by Lord Kelvin:

Captain Creak's first step in the development of the liquid compass was to introduce a "card mounted on a float, with two thin and relatively short needles, fitted with their poles at the scientifically correct angular distances, and with the centre of gravity, centre of buoyancy, and the point of suspension in correct relation to each other...The compass thus designed rectified the defects of the Admiralty Standard Compass...with the additional advantage of considerable steadiness under heavy gunfire and in a seaway... The one defect in the compass as developed by Creak up to 1892 was that "for manoeuvring purposes it was inferior to Lord Kelvin's compass, owing to comparative sluggishness on a large alteration of course through the drag on the card by the liquid in which it floated...[4][60]

Typical aircraft-mounted magnetic compass

However, with ship and gun sizes continuously increasing, the advantages of the liquid compass over the Kelvin compass became unavoidably apparent to the Admiralty, and after widespread adoption by other navies, the liquid compass was generally adopted by the Royal Navy as well.[4]

Liquid compasses were next adapted for aircraft. In 1909, Captain F.O. Creagh-Osborne, Superintendent of Compasses at the British Admiralty, introduced his Creagh-Osborne aircraft compass, which used a mixture of alcohol and distilled water to damp the compass card.[61][62] After the success of this invention, Capt. Creagh-Osborne adapted his design to a much smaller pocket model[63] for individual use[64] by officers of artillery or infantry, receiving a patent in 1915.[65]

In 1933 Tuomas Vohlonen, a surveyor by profession, applied for a patent for a unique method of filling and sealing a lightweight celluloid compass housing or capsule with a petroleum distillate to dampen the needle and protect it from shock and wear caused by excessive motion.[66] Introduced in a wrist-mount model in 1936 as the Suunto Oy Model M-311, the new capsule design led directly to the lightweight liquid field compasses of today.[66]

History of non-navigational uses

Building orientation

Evidence for the orientation of buildings by the means of a magnetic compass can be found in 12th century Denmark: one fourth of its 570 Romanesque churches are rotated by 5-15 degrees clockwise from true east-west, thus corresponding to the predominant magnetic declination of the time of their construction.[67] Most of these churches were built in the 12th century, indicating a fairly common usage of magnetic compasses in Europe by then.[68]


The use of a compass as a direction finder underground was pioneered by the Tuscan mining town Massa where floating magnetic needles were employed for determining tunneling and defining the claims of the various mining companies as early as the 13th century.[69] In the second half of the 15th century, the compass became standard equipment for Tyrolian miners. Shortly afterwards the first detailed treatise dealing with the underground use of compasses was published by a German miner Rülein von Calw (1463–1525).[70]


Three astronomical compasses meant for establishing the meridian were described by Peter Peregrinus in 1269 (referring to experiments made before 1248)[71] In the 1300s, an Arabic treatise written by the Egyptian astronomer and muezzin Ibn Simʿūn describes a dry compass for use as a "Qibla indicator" to find the direction to Mecca. Ibn Simʿūn's compass, however, did not feature a compass card nor the familiar glass box.[33] In the 14th century, the Syrian astronomer and timekeeper Ibn al-Shatir (1304–1375) invented a timekeeping device incorporating both a universal sundial and a magnetic compass. He invented it for the purpose of finding the times of Salah prayers.[41] Arab navigators also introduced the 32-point compass rose during this time.[42]

Modern compasses

A trail walker's liquid-filled compass, with a lanyard for the neck

Modern compasses usually use a magnetized needle or dial inside a capsule completely filled with fluid (oil, kerosene, or alcohol is common). While older designs commonly incorporated a flexible diaphragm or airspace inside the capsule to allow for volume changes caused by temperature or altitude, modern liquid compasses utilize smaller housings and/or flexible materials for the capsule itself to accomplish the same result. The fluid dampens the movement of the needle and causes the needle to stabilize quickly rather than oscillate back and forth around magnetic north. North on the needle or dial, as well as other key points are often marked with phosphorescent, photoluminescent, or self-luminous materials[72] to enable the compass to be read at night or in poor light.

Many modern recreational and military compasses integrate a protractor with the compass, using a separate magnetized needle. In this design the rotating capsule containing the needle has a transparent base containing map orienting lines as well as an orienting 'box' or outline for the needle.[73] The capsule is then mounted in a transparent baseplate containing a direction-of-travel (DOT) indicator for use in taking bearings directly from a map.[73]

Liquid filled lensatic compass
Cammenga air filled lensatic compass

Other features found on some modern compasses are map and romer scales for measuring distances and plotting positions on maps, luminous markings on the face or bezels, various sighting mechanisms (mirror, prism, etc.) for taking bearings of distant objects with greater precision, "global" needles for use in differing hemispheres, adjustable declination for obtaining instant true bearings without resort to arithmetic, and devices such as inclinometers for measuring gradients.[73]

The military forces of a few nations, notably the United States Army, continue to utilize lensatic field compasses with magnetized compass dials or cards instead of needles. A lensatic-card compass permits reading the bearing off the compass card with only a slight downward glance from the sights (see photo), but may require a separate protractor for use with a map.[73][74] The official U.S. military lensatic compass does not use fluid to damp needle swing, but rather electromagnetic induction to damp the needle. A "deep-well" design is used to allow the compass to be used globally with little or no effect in accuracy caused by a tilting compass dial. As induction forces provide less damping than fluid-filled designs, a needle lock is fitted to the compass to reduce wear, operated by the folding action of the rear sight/lens holder. The use of air-filled induction compasses has declined over the years, as they may become inoperative or inaccurate in freezing temperatures or humid environments.[75]

Some military compasses, like the U.S. SandY-183 (name derived from Stocker & Yale) military lensatic compass, the Silva 4b Militaire, and the Suunto M-5N(T) contain the radioactive material tritium (3H) and a combination of phosphors.[76] The U.S. military compass, made by Stocker & Yale (later, Cammenga) contained 120 mCi (millicuries) of tritium. The purpose of the tritium and phosphors is to provide illumination for the compass, via radioluminescent tritium illumination, which does not require the compass to be "recharged" by sunlight or artificial light.[77]

Mariner's compasses can have two or more magnetic needles permanently attached to a compass card. These move freely on a pivot. A lubber line, which can be a marking on the compass bowl or a small fixed needle indicates the ship's heading on the compass card. Traditionally the card is divided into thirty-two points (known as rhumbs), although modern compasses are marked in degrees rather than cardinal points. The glass-covered box (or bowl) contains a suspended gimbal within a binnacle. This preserves the horizontal position.

Thumb compass

Thumb compass on left

A thumb compass is a type of compass commonly used in orienteering, a sport in which map reading and terrain association are paramount. Consequently, most thumb compasses have minimal or no degree markings at all, and are normally used only to orient the map to magnetic north. Thumb compasses are also often transparent so that an orienteer can hold a map in the hand with the compass and see the map through the compass.


A gyrocompass is similar to a gyroscope. It is a non-magnetic compass that finds true north by using an (electrically powered) fast-spinning wheel and friction forces in order to exploit the rotation of the Earth. Gyrocompasses are widely used on ships. They have two main advantages over magnetic compasses:

  • they find true north, i.e., the direction of Earth's rotational axis, as opposed to magnetic north,
  • they are not affected by ferromagnetic metal (including iron, steel, cobalt, nickel, and various alloys) in a ship's hull. (No compass is affected by nonferromagnetic metal, although a magnetic compass will be affected by any kind of wires with electric current passing through them.)

Large ships typically rely on a gyrocompass, using the magnetic compass only as a backup. Increasingly, electronic fluxgate compasses are used on smaller vessels. However compasses are still widely in use as they can be small, use simple reliable technology, are comparatively cheap, often easier to use than GPS, require no energy supply, and unlike GPS, are not affected by objects, e.g. trees, that can block the reception of electronic signals.

Solid state compasses

Small compasses found in clocks, mobile phones, and other electronic devices are solid-state compasses, usually built out of two or three magnetic field sensors that provide data for a microprocessor. The correct heading relative to the compass is calculated using trigonometry.

Often, the device is a discrete component which outputs either a digital or analog signal proportional to its orientation. This signal is interpreted by a controller or microprocessor and used either internally, or sent to a display unit. The sensor uses highly calibrated internal electronics to measure the response of the device to the Earth's magnetic field.

GPS receivers using two or more antennae can now achieve 0.5° in heading accuracy (e.g.[78]) and have startup times in seconds rather than hours for gyrocompass systems. Manufactured primarily for maritime applications, they can also detect pitch and roll of ships.

Specialty compasses

A standard Brunton Geo, used commonly by geologists

Apart from navigational compases, other specialty compasses have also been designed to accommodate specific uses. These include:

  • Qibla compass, which is used by Muslims to show the direction to Mecca for prayers.
  • Optical or prismatic hand-bearing compass, most often used by surveyors, but also by cave explorers, foresters, and geologists. This compasses ordinarily uses a liquid-damped capsule[79] and magnetized floating compass dial with an integral optical (direct or lensatic) or prismatic sight, often fitted with built-in photoluminescent or battery-powered illumination.[73] Using the optical or prism sight, such compasses can be read with extreme accuracy when taking bearings to an object, often to fractions of a degree. Most of these compasses are designed for heavy-duty use, with high-quality needles and jeweled bearings, and many are fitted for tripod mounting for additional accuracy.[73]
  • Trough compasses, mounted in a rectangular box whose length was often several times its width, date back several centuries. They were used for land surveying, particularly with plane tables.

Limitations of the magnetic compass

The compass is very stable in areas close to the equator, which is far from "magnetic north". As the compass is moved closer and closer to one of the magnetic poles of the Earth, the compass becomes more sensitive to crossing its magnetic field lines. At some point close to the magnetic pole the compass will not indicate any particular direction but will begin to drift. Also, the needle starts to point up or down when getting closer to the poles, because of the so-called magnetic inclination. Cheap compasses with bad bearings may get stuck because of this and therefore indicate a wrong direction.

All magnetic devices are subject to fields other than Earth's, which is not particularly strong. Local environments may contain mineral deposits and human sources such as MRIs. Vehicles may contain ferrous metals, which may pick up their own fields. Cars may be mostly steel, and render simple compasses useless after time. While ships, submarines, and spacecraft may be built from carefully-controlled materials, and later degaussed, drivers rarely take such a step.

A compass is also subject to errors when the compass is accelerated or decelerated in an airplane or automobile. Depending on which of the Earth's hemispheres the compass is located and if the force is acceleration or deceleration the compass will increase the indicated heading or decrease the indicated heading.

Another error of the mechanical compass is turning error. When one turns from a heading of east or west the compass will lag behind the turn or lead ahead of the turn. Magnetometers, and substitutes such as gyrocompasses, are more stable in such situations.

Construction of a compass

Magnetic needle

A magnetic rod is required when constructing a compass. This can be created by aligning an iron or steel rod with Earth's magnetic field and then tempering or striking it. However, this method produces only a weak magnet so other methods are preferred. For example, a magnetised rod can be created by repeatedly rubbing an iron rod with a magnetic lodestone. This magnetised rod (or magnetic needle) is then placed on a low friction surface to allow it to freely pivot to align itself with the magnetic field. It is then labeled so the user can distinguish the north-pointing from the south-pointing end; in modern convention the north end is typically marked in some way, often by being painted red.

Needle-and-bowl device

If a needle is rubbed on a lodestone or other magnet, the needle becomes magnetized. When it is inserted in a cork or piece of wood, and placed in a bowl of water it becomes a compass. Such devices were universally used as compass until the invention of the box-like compass with a 'dry' pivoting needle sometime around 1300.

Points of the compass

Wrist compass of the Soviet Army with counterclockwise double graduation: 60° (like a watch) and 360°.

Originally, many compasses were marked only as to the direction of magnetic north, or to the four cardinal points (north, south, east, west). Later, these were divided, in China into 24, and in Europe into 32 equally spaced points around the compass card. For a table of the thirty-two points, see compass points.

In the modern era, the 360-degree system took hold. This system is still in use today for civilian navigators. The degree system spaces 360 equidistant points located clockwise around the compass dial. In the 19th century some European nations adopted the "grad" (also called grade or gon) system instead, where a right angle is 100 grads to give a circle of 400 grads. Dividing grads into tenths to give a circle of 4000 decigrades has also been used in armies.

Most military forces have adopted the French "millieme" system. This is an approximation of a milli-radian (6283 per circle), in which the compass dial is spaced into 6400 units (Sweden uses 6300 ) or "mils" for additional precision when measuring angles, laying artillery, etc. The value to the military is that one angular mil subtends approximately one metre at a distance of one kilometer. Imperial Russia used a system derived by dividing the circumference of a circle into chords of the same length as the radius. Each of these was divided into 100 spaces, giving a circle of 600. The Soviet Union divided these into tenths to give a circle of 6000 units, usually translated as "mils". This system was adopted by the former Warsaw Pact countries (Soviet Union, GDR etc.), often counterclockwise (see picture of wrist compass). This is still in use in Russia.

Compass balancing

Because the Earth's magnetic field's inclination and intensity vary at different latitudes, compasses are often balanced during manufacture. Most manufacturers balance their compass needles for one of five zones, ranging from zone 1, covering most of the Northern Hemisphere, to zone 5 covering Australia and the southern oceans. This balancing prevents excessive dipping of one end of the needle which can cause the compass card to stick and give false readings.

Many magnetic compasses have a small aluminium ring wrapped around the needle. This ring can be used for counter balancing the needle against the dip. The ring called as 'a rider', which can be repositioned if the compass is taken to a zone with higher or lower dip.

Compass correction

A binnacle containing a ship's steering compass, with the two iron balls which correct the effects of ferromagnetic materials

Like any magnetic device, compasses are affected by nearby ferrous materials as well as by strong local electromagnetic forces. Compasses used for wilderness land navigation should not be used in proximity to ferrous metal objects or electromagnetic fields (car electrical systems, automobile engines, steel pitons, etc.) as that can affect their accuracy.[73] Compasses are particularly difficult to use accurately in or near trucks, cars or other mechanized vehicles even when corrected for deviation by the use of built-in magnets or other devices. Large amounts of ferrous metal combined with the on-and-off electrical fields caused by the vehicle's ignition and charging systems generally result in significant compass errors.

At sea, a ship's compass must also be corrected for errors, called deviation, caused by iron and steel in its structure and equipment. The ship is swung, that is rotated about a fixed point while its heading is noted by alignment with fixed points on the shore. A compass deviation card is prepared so that the navigator can convert between compass and magnetic headings. The compass can be corrected in three ways. First the lubber line can be adjusted so that it is aligned with the direction in which the ship travels, then the effects of permanent magnets can be corrected for by small magnets fitted within the case of the compass. The effect of ferromagnetic materials in the compass's environment can be corrected by two iron balls mounted on either side of the compass binnacle. The coefficient a0 representing the error in the lubber line, while a1,b1 the ferromagnetic effects and a2,b2 the non-ferromagnetic component.

A similar process is used to calibrate the compass in light general aviation aircraft, with the compass deviation card often mounted permanently just above or below the magnetic compass on the instrument panel. Fluxgate compasses can be calibrated automatically, and can also be programmed with the correct local compass variation so as to indicate the true heading.

Using a compass

Turning the compass scale on the map (D - the local magnetic declination)
When the needle is aligned with and superimposed over the outlined orienting arrow on the bottom of the capsule, the degree figure on the compass ring at the direction-of-travel (DOT) indicator gives the magnetic bearing to the target (mountain).

A magnetic compass points to magnetic north pole, which is approximately 1,000 miles from the true geographic North Pole. A magnetic compass's user can determine true North by finding the magnetic north and then correcting for variation and deviation. Variation is defined as the angle between the direction of true (geographic) north and the direction of the meridian between the magnetic poles. Variation values for most of the oceans had been calculated and published by 1914.[80] Deviation refers to the response of the compass to local magnetic fields caused by the presence of iron and electric currents; one can partly compensate for these by careful location of the compass and the placement of compensating magnets under the compass itself. Mariners have long known that these measures do not completely cancel deviation; hence, they performed an additional step by measuring the compass bearing of a landmark with a known magnetic bearing. They then pointed their ship to the next compass point and measured again, graphing their results. In this way, correction tables could be created, which would be consulted when compasses were used when traveling in those locations.

Mariners are concerned about very accurate measurements; however, casual users need not be concerned with differences between magnetic and true North. Except in areas of extreme magnetic declination variance (20 degrees or more), this is enough to protect from walking in a substantially different direction than expected over short distances, provided the terrain is fairly flat and visibility is not impaired. By carefully recording distances (time or paces) and magnetic bearings traveled, one can plot a course and return to one's starting point using the compass alone.[73]

Soldier using a prismatic compass to get an azimuth.

Compass navigation in conjunction with a map (terrain association) requires a different method. To take a map bearing or true bearing (a bearing taken in reference to true, not magnetic north) to a destination with a protractor compass, the edge of the compass is placed on the map so that it connects the current location with the desired destination (some sources recommend physically drawing a line). The orienting lines in the base of the compass dial are then rotated to align with actual or true north by aligning them with a marked line of longitude (or the vertical margin of the map), ignoring the compass needle entirely.[73] The resulting true bearing or map bearing may then be read at the degree indicator or direction-of-travel (DOT) line, which may be followed as an azimuth (course) to the destination. If a magnetic north bearing or compass bearing is desired, the compass must be adjusted by the amount of magnetic declination before using the bearing so that both map and compass are in agreement.[73] In the given example, the large mountain in the second photo was selected as the target destination on the map. Some compasses allow the scale to be adjusted to compensate for the local magnetic declination; if adjusted correctly, the compass will give the true bearing instead of the magnetic bearing.

The modern hand-held protractor compass always has an additional direction-of-travel (DOT) arrow or indicator inscribed on the baseplate. To check one's progress along a course or azimuth, or to ensure that the object in view is indeed the destination, a new compass reading may be taken to the target if visible (here, the large mountain). After pointing the DOT arrow on the baseplate at the target, the compass is oriented so that the needle is superimposed over the orienting arrow in the capsule. The resulting bearing indicated is the magnetic bearing to the target. Again, if one is using "true" or map bearings, and the compass does not have preset, pre-adjusted declination, one must additionally add or subtract magnetic declination to convert the magnetic bearing into a true bearing. The exact value of the magnetic declination is place-dependent and varies over time, though declination is frequently given on the map itself or obtainable on-line from various sites. If the hiker has been following the correct path, the compass' corrected (true) indicated bearing should closely correspond to the true bearing previously obtained from the map.

See also


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  2. ^ a b c d Kreutz, p. 367
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  4. ^ a b c d W. H. Creak: "The History of the Liquid Compass", The Geographical Journal, Vol. 56, No. 3 (1920), pp. 238-239
  5. ^ The Earth's magnetic field is approximately that of a tilted dipole. If it were exactly dipolar, the compass would point to the geomagnetic poles, which would be identical to the North Magnetic Pole and South Magnetic Pole; however, it is not, so these poles are not equivalent and the compass only points approximately at the geomagnetic poles.
  6. ^ Seidman, David, and Cleveland, Paul, The Essential Wilderness Navigator, Ragged Mountain Press (2001), ISBN 0-07-136110-3, p. 147: Since the magnetic compass is simple, durable, and requires no separate electrical power supply, it remains popular as a primary or secondary navigational aid, especially in remote areas or where power is unavailable.
  7. ^ Serway, Raymond A.; Chris Vuille (2006). Essentials of college physics. USA: Cengage Learning. p. 493. ISBN 0495106194. 
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  75. ^ Kearny, Cresson H., Jungle Snafus...And Remedies, Oregon Institute Press (1996), ISBN 1-884067-10-7, pp. 164-170: In 1989, one U.S. Army jungle infantry instructor reported that about 20% of the issue lensatic compasses in his company used in a single jungle exercise in Panama were ruined within three weeks by rain and humidity.
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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Compass — Com pass (k[u^]m pas), n. [F. compas, fr. LL. compassus circle, prop., a stepping together; com + passus pace, step. See {Pace}, {Pass}.] 1. A passing round; circuit; circuitous course. [1913 Webster] They fetched a compass of seven day s journey …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • COMPASS — is an acronym for COMP rehensive ASS embler. COMPASS is a macro assembly language on Control Data Corporation s 3000 series, and on the 60 bit CDC 6000 series, 7600 and Cyber 70 and 170 series mainframe computers.There are two flavors of COMPASS… …   Wikipedia

  • Compass — steht für Compass (Satellitennavigation) der Name des chinesischen Satellitennavigationssystems Compass Group ein britisches Nahrungsmittelunternehmen COMPASS Experiment ein Detektor am Teilchenbeschleuniger SPS COMPASS 1 ein von Studenten… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Compass — Com pass (k[u^]m pas), v. t. [imp. & p. p. {Compassed} (k[u^]m past); p. pr. & vb. n. {Compassing}.] [F. compasser, LL. compassare.] 1. To go about or entirely round; to make the circuit of. [1913 Webster] Ye shall compass the city seven times.… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • COMPASS — steht für Compass (Satellitennavigation) der Name des chinesischen Satellitennavigationssystems COMPASS Experiment ein Detektor am Teilchenbeschleuniger SPS COMPASS 1 ein von Studenten entwickelter Kleinsatellit Kinder und Jugend… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • compass — [n] boundary, periphery ambit, area, bound, circle, circuit, circumference, circumscription, confines, domain, enclosure, environs, expanse, extent, field, limit, limitation, orbit, perimeter, precinct, purlieus, purview, radius, range, reach,… …   New thesaurus

  • compass — vb 1 *surround, environ, encircle, circle, encompass, hem, gird, girdle, ring Analogous words: *enclose, envelop: confine, circumscribe, restrict (see LIMIT) 2 gain, attain, achieve, *reach Analogous words: effect, fulfill, accomplish, * …   New Dictionary of Synonyms

  • compass — [kum′pəs; ] also [ käm′pəs] vt. [ME compassen < OFr compasser, to go around < VL * compassare < L com , together + passus, a step: see PACE1] 1. Archaic to go around; make a circuit of 2. ENCOMPASS (sense 1) 3. to grasp mentally;… …   English World dictionary

  • compass — index blockade (enclosure), boundary, caliber (measurement), capacity (maximum), circumscribe (surround by boundary) …   Law dictionary

  • compass — ► NOUN 1) an instrument containing a magnetized pointer which shows the direction of magnetic north and bearings from it. 2) (also compasses) an instrument for drawing circles and arcs and measuring distances between points, consisting of two… …   English terms dictionary

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