Cover image for Compass : a story of exploration and innovation
Compass : a story of exploration and innovation
Gurney, Alan.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : W. W. Norton, 2004.
Physical Description:
320 pages ; 21 cm
Subject Term:
Format :


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VK577 .G84 2004 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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From the time man first took to the seas until only one thousand years ago, sight and winds were the sailor's only navigational aids. It was not until the development of the compass that maps and charts could be used with any accuracy-even so, it would be hundreds of years and thousands of shipwrecks before the marvellous instrument was perfected. Its history up to modern times is filled with the stories of disasters that befell sailors who misused it. of the essential navigational device-the instrument Victor Hugo called the soul of the ship.

Author Notes

Alan Gurney is a former yacht designer and photographer, and is now a writer living in Suffolk, England.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Gurney's history of the compass uses the same event for its overture as Dava Sobel's Longitude (1995)--the 1707 destruction of a British naval squadron because of a navigational error. Contending that the search for a better compass was as important an outcome of the disaster as Sobel's subject, the invention of the nautical chronometer, Gurney chronicles the significant figures in the instrument's perfection. This book partially overlaps Amir Aczel's The Riddle of the Compass (2001), but Gurney's British emphasis distinguishes his work from Aczel's Mediterranean focus. Noting the scientific footing the Elizabethan William Gilbert gave to the study of magnetism, Gurney picks up steam with investigations by Edmond Halley into the most maddening defect of compasses: their deviations under local magnetic fields from the magnetic north pole. Others found that iron nails in a ship compounded the problem, aggravated further when iron supplanted wood in the construction of hulls. Consequently, sea disasters abound in Gurney's narrative, admonishing each would-be slayer of magnetic deviation. An engaging sequence of stories for the maritime set. --Gilbert Taylor Copyright 2004 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

British writer, photographer and yacht designer Gurney (The Race to the White Continent) sets his sights on the events leading to the invention Victor Hugo called "the soul of the ship." Centuries ago, a sailor's directional aids were winds and vision. Until the compass was developed in the 12th century, maps and charts could not be used with accuracy, but "the path from lodestone to global positioning systems has been a tortuous one... marked by wrecks and sailors' bones." Gurney begins with the Scilly Islands catastrophe of 1707, when "shoddy compasses" led to the death of 2,000 men in "the worst shipwreck disaster ever suffered by the Royal Navy." Early discoveries that lodestone could magnetize a needle were followed by a parade of devices and experiments. With the circumnavigation of the globe in 1522, "the whole world was magically transformed into an oyster for traders... explorers, and mariners: an oyster ready and waiting to be opened, not with a sword, but by a compass needle." In 1901, the magnetic compass was "unseated from its throne" by the gyrocompass, yet Gurney concludes by noting that despite 20th-century technological upgrades, the magnetic compass remains "a fail-safe measure." An appendix itemizes deviations of the compass needle from the magnetic north; the 20 illustrations include maps, charts, compass cards and woodcuts. Bibliographic notes filling 24 pages indicate Gurney's exhaustive research for this engaging foray into vistas and voyages of the past. (June 28) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgmentsp. 9
Prologuep. 13
Chapter 1 Dead Reckoningp. 19
Chapter 2 Needle and Stonep. 31
Chapter 3 The Rose of the Windsp. 41
Chapter 4 Variation and Dipp. 55
Chapter 5 Edmond Halley, Polymathp. 69
Chapter 6 To Compass the Globep. 77
Chapter 7 Halleyan Linesp. 87
Chapter 8 Dr. Gowin Knight and His Magnetic Machinep. 99
Chapter 9 Knight's Compassp. 109
Chapter 10 The Shocks of Tempestuous Seasp. 119
Chapter 11 Any Old Iron, Any Old Ironp. 135
Chapter 12 The Book of Bearingsp. 149
Chapter 13 The Flinders Barp. 161
Chapter 14 Soft Iron, Hard Ironp. 175
Chapter 15 "An Evil So Pregnant with Mischief"p. 187
Chapter 16 Deviation, the Hydra-Headed Monsterp. 199
Chapter 17 The "Inextricable Entangled Web"p. 211
Chapter 18 Gray's Binnaclep. 225
Chapter 19 Thomson's Compass and Binnaclep. 235
Chapter 20 The Selling of a Compassp. 247
Chapter 21 A Question of Liquidityp. 261
Epilogue: From Needle to Spinning Topp. 273
Appendix Deviationp. 277
Notesp. 281
Bibliographyp. 297
Indexp. 307