• A compass is a device that indicates direction. It is one of the most important instruments for navigation.
    Magnetic compasses are the most well known type of compass. They have become so popular that the term “compass” almost always refers a magnetic compass.  While the design and construction of this type of compass has changed significantly over the centuries, the concept of how it works has remained the same. Magnetic compasses consist of a magnetized needle that is allowed to rotate so it lines up with the Earth's magnetic field. The ends point to what are known as magnetic north and magnetic south.
    Scientists and historians don’t know when the principles behind magnetic compasses were discovered. Ancient Greeks understood magnetism. As early as 2,000 years ago, Chinese scientists may have known that rubbing an iron bar (such as a needle) with a naturally occurring magnet, called a lodestone, would temporarily magnetize the needle so that it would point north and south.   
    Very early compasses were made of a magnetized needle attached to a piece of wood or cork that floated freely in a dish of water. As the needle would settle, the marked end would point toward magnetic north. 
    As engineers and scientists learned more about magnetism, the compass needle was mounted and placed in the middle of a card that showed the cardinal directions—north, south, east, and west. A spearhead and the letter T, which stood for the Latin name of the North Wind, Tramontana, signified north. This combination evolved into a fleur-de-lis design, which can still be seen today. All 32 points of direction were eventually added to the compass card
    Historians think China may have been the first civilization to develop a magnetic compass that could be used for navigation. Chinese scientists may have developed navigational compasses as early as the 11th or 12th century. Western Europeans soon followed at the end of the 12th century.        
    In their earliest use, compasses were likely used as backups for when the sun, stars, or other landmarks could not be seen. Eventually, as compasses became more reliable and more explorers understood how to read them, the devices became a critical navigational tool.
    Adjustments and Adaptations
    By the 15th century, explorers realized that the “north” indicated by a compass was not the same as Earth’s true geographic north. This discrepancy between magnetic north and true north is called variation (by mariners or pilots) or magnetic declination (by land navigators) and varies depending on location. Variation is not significant when using magnetic compasses near the Equator, but closer to the North and South Poles, the difference is much greater and can lead someone many kilometers off-course. Navigators must adjust their compass readings to account for variation.
    Other adaptations have been made to magnetic compasses over time, especially for their use in marine navigation. When ships evolved from being made of wood to being made of iron and steel, the magnetism of the ship affected compass readings. This difference is called deviation. Adjustments such as placing soft iron balls (called Kelvin spheres) and bar magnets (called Flinders bars) near the compass helped increase the accuracy of the readings. Deviation must also be taken into account on aircraft using compasses, due to the metal in the construction of an airplane.  
    Magnetic compasses come in many forms. The most basic are portable compasses for use on casual hikes. Magnetic compasses can have additional features, such as magnifiers for use with maps, a prism or a mirror that allows you to see the landscape as you follow the compass reading, or markings in Braille for the visually impaired. The most complicated compasses are complex devices on ships or planes that can calculate and adjust for motion, variation, and deviation.   
    Other Types of Compasses
    Some compasses do not use Earth’s magnetism to indicate direction. The gyrocompass, invented in the early 20th century, uses a spinning gyroscope to follow Earth’s axis of rotation to point to true north. Since magnetic north is not measured, variation is not an issue. Once the gyroscope begins spinning, motion will not disturb it. This type of compass is often used on ships and aircraft.
    A solar compass uses the sun as a navigational tool. The most common method is to use a compass card and the angle of the shadow of the sun to indicate direction. 
    Even without a compass card, there are techniques that use the sun as a compass. One method is to make a shadow stick. A shadow stick is a stick placed upright in the ground. Pebbles placed around the stick, and a piece of string to track the shadow of the sun across the sky, help a navigator determine the directions of east and west. 
    Another type of solar compass is an old-fashioned analog (not digital) watch. Using the watch’s hands and the position of the sun, it is possible to determine north or south. Simply hold the watch parallel to the ground (in your hand) and point the hour hand in the direction of the sun. Find the angle between the hour hand and the 12 o’clock mark. This is the north-south line. In the Southern Hemisphere, north will be the direction closer to the sun. In the Northern Hemisphere, north will be the direction further from the sun.
    Receivers from the global positioning system (GPS) have begun to take the place of compasses. A GPS receiver coordinates with satellites orbiting the Earth and monitoring stations on Earth to pinpoint the receiver's location. GPS receivers can plot latitude, longitude, and altitude on a map. Unless large objects block signals, readings are usually accurate to within about 15 meters (50 feet).   
    Despite advancements with GPS, the compass is still a valuable tool. Many airplanes and ships still use highly advanced compasses as navigational instruments. For casual observation—for navigators on foot or in a small boat—a pocket compass or a basic compass mounted on a dashboard remains a practical and portable tool.
    One of the reasons people doubt Robert Peary reached the North Pole is because he failed to provide compass observations.
    Pole Swap
    If you were using a compass 800,000 years ago and facing north, the needle would point to the south magnetic pole. Why? Even though the Earth acts like a giant magnet, it is not stable. Both the north and south magnetic poles are slowly shifting. Since the magnetic north pole was discovered in the early 19th century, it has drifted northward by more than 966 kilometers (600 miles) and it continues to move about 40 miles per year. The north and south magnetic poles have also switched places many times in the Earth’s history. 

    Spiritual Orienteering
    The Chinese first used compasses not for navigation, but for spiritual purposes. They used the magnetic devices to organize buildings and other things according to feng shui, the ancient practice of harmonizing an environment according to the "laws of Heaven."

    Animals and Compasses
    Many animals—such as certain types of ants, fish, and birds—use the sun as a compass to help them find direction. They use their internal biological clock to compensate for the sun shifting in the sky and maintain a straight course. Other animals—like pigeons—are able to navigate using the Earth’s own magnetic field. Their brains function like an internal magnetic compass to follow the Earth’s magnetic field.
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    accuracy Noun

    condition of being exact or correct.

    adaptation Noun

    a modification of an organism or its parts that makes it more fit for existence. An adaptation is passed from generation to generation.

    Encyclopedic Entry: adaptation
    aircraft Noun

    vehicle able to travel and operate above the ground.

    altitude Noun

    the distance above sea level.

    Encyclopedic Entry: altitude
    axis of rotation Noun

    single axis or line around which a body rotates or spins.

    calculate Verb

    to reach a conclusion by mathematical or logical methods.

    cardinal direction Noun

    one of the four main points of a compass: north, east, south, west.

    casual observation Noun

    something that is seen, heard, touched, smelled, or tasted without being studied in depth.

    civilization Noun

    complex way of life that developed as humans began to develop urban settlements.

    Encyclopedic Entry: civilization
    compass Noun

    instrument used to tell direction.

    Encyclopedic Entry: compass
    compass card Noun

    freely rotating circular card with magnets attached to its underside, its face marked with up to 32 compass points, degrees clockwise from north, or both.

    complex Adjective


    concept Noun


    consist Verb

    to be made of.

    coordinate Verb

    to work together or organize for a specific goal.

    critical Adjective

    very important.

    deviation Noun

    error of a magnetic compass due to the effect of local magnetism, such as materials used in the construction of a ship or aircraft.

    device Noun

    tool or piece of machinery.

    direction Noun

    the way in which somebody or something goes, points, or faces.

    Encyclopedic Entry: direction
    discrepancy Noun

    difference or conflict in sets of data.

    engineer Noun

    person who plans the building of things, such as structures (construction engineer) or substances (chemical engineer).

    Equator Noun

    imaginary line around the Earth, another planet, or star running east-west, 0 degrees latitude.

    Encyclopedic Entry: equator
    evolve Verb

    to develop new characteristics based on adaptation and natural selection.

    explorer Noun

    person who studies unknown areas.

    fleur-de-lis Noun

    stylized design, often associated with France or French royalty, representing three petals of a flowering iris encircled by a band.

    Flinders bar Noun

    bar of soft iron, mounted vertically beneath a magnetic compass to compensate for vertical magnetic currents.

    Global Positioning System (GPS) Noun

    system of satellites and receiving devices used to determine the location of something on Earth.

    GPS receiver Noun

    device that gets radio signals from satellites in orbit above Earth in order to calculate a precise location.

    gyroscope Noun

    device consisting of a rotating wheel mounted so that its axis can turn freely in any direction, and capable of maintaining the same absolute direction in spite of movements of the mountings and surrounding parts.

    indicate Verb

    to display or show.

    instrument Noun


    iron Noun

    chemical element with the symbol Fe.

    Kelvin sphere Noun

    one of two iron balls placed next to a magnetic compass to compensate for horizontal magnetic currents. Also called a Kelvin ball or navigator's ball.

    landmark Noun

    a prominent feature that guides in navigation or marks a site.

    landscape Noun

    the geographic features of a region.

    Encyclopedic Entry: landscape
    Latin Noun

    language of ancient Rome and the Roman Empire.

    latitude Noun

    distance north or south of the Equator, measured in degrees.

    Encyclopedic Entry: latitude
    lodestone Noun

    natural magnet.

    longitude Noun

    distance east or west of the prime meridian, measured in degrees.

    Encyclopedic Entry: longitude
    magnet Noun

    material that has the ability to physically attract other substances.

    magnetic declination Noun

    difference between a local magentic field, or the direction a compass points, and true north, or the direction of the geographic North Pole.

    magnetic field Noun

    area around and affected by a magnet or charged particle.

    magnetic north Adjective

    direction that all compass needles point.

    magnetize Verb

    to turn something into a magnet.

    map Noun

    symbolic representation of selected characteristics of a place, usually drawn on a flat surface.

    Encyclopedic Entry: map
    marine Adjective

    having to do with the ocean.

    mariner Noun


    monitoring station Noun

    facility with instruments and tools for measuring and keeping track of conditions in an area.

    navigation Noun

    art and science of determining an object's position, course, and distance traveled.

    Encyclopedic Entry: navigation
    Northern Hemisphere Noun

    half of the Earth between the North Pole and the Equator.

    orbit Verb

    to move in a circular pattern around a more massive object.

    Encyclopedic Entry: orbit
    pilot Noun

    person who steers a ship or aircraft.

    plot Verb

    to form a path based on calculations.

    portable Adjective

    able to be easily transported from one place to another.

    principle Noun

    rule or standard.

    prism Noun

    device for distributing light into different colors of the spectrum.

    reliable Adjective

    dependable or consistent.

    rotate Verb

    to turn around a center point or axis.

    satellite Noun

    object that orbits around something else. Satellites can be natural, like moons, or made by people.

    significant Adjective

    important or impressive.

    Southern Hemisphere Noun

    half of the Earth between the South Pole and the Equator.

    steel Noun

    metal made of the elements iron and carbon.

    true north Noun

    direction of the geographic North Pole.