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The National MagLab is funded by the National Science Foundation and the State of Florida.

Early Chinese Compass – 400 BC

The first compass was used not to point people in the right direction literally, but figuratively.

Early Chinese Compass – 400 BC

Knowing what direction you are facing is a very valuable piece of information. This is especially true if you are traveling: because you can use the information to help find your way or guide your safe return. There’s nothing much worse than getting hopelessly lost in the woods or successfully exploring a new frontier, only to find that you have no idea how to make it back home. Such problems were much more common before the invention of the compass, an instrument that indicates direction. Before the compass, people had to rely on landmarks, constellations, or other visual means to help steer them in the right direction. This, of course, caused difficulties under less than ideal circumstances, such as a cloudy night or a dense fog.

The first compasses, however, like the one appearing here, were not designed for navigation. Appearing in China around the 4th century BC, primitive compasses showed people the way not literally, but figuratively, helping them order and harmonize their environments and lives. served as designators of direction that the Chinese primarily used to order and harmonize their environments and lives. Today many westerners are familiar with this kind of use of direction as part of feng shui, an ancient Chinese practice that has evolved into a decorating trend. The earliest mention of a compass and its use appears in The Book of the Devil Valley Master. Its author notes that in addition to its main purpose, the compass, or “south pointer” as the Chinese called it, could be carried with jade hunters to prevent them from getting lost during their journeys.

People usually built early compasses using lodestone, a special form of the mineral magnetite that, as a natural permanent magnet, aligns itself with the Earth’s magnetic field. exhibits north-south polarity. Fashioned into the shape of a spoon or ladle, the lodestone sat upon a flat, square-shaped plate made of bronze, which served as a representation of Earth. In the center of the plate, was a large circle representing the Heavens appeared in which the lodestone was placed. This circle represented the Heavens. The lodestone spoon itself symbolized the constellation the Great Bear (also called Ursa Major), which contains the collection of stars known as the Big Dipper. Because of the properties of lodestone, the handle of the spoon always pointed towards the south.

In addition to its basic components, early compasses of this type featured a number of markings. Chinese characters appeared on the brass plate to mark the eight main directions (north, south, east, west, northeast, northwest, southeast, and southwest). Additional signs marked finer directional gradations and linked directions to symbols found in the classic Chinese philosophical text I Ching.

Another type of early compass exhibited an entirely different design. The Chinese also determined direction with a device consisting of a wooden fish containing a magnetized needle placed in a bowl filled with water. Both the fish- and spoon-type compasses paved the way for more precise instruments that allowed explorers to accurately navigate the seas, effectively changing the course of history.