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How the Compass Helped Columbus

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  • 0:07 History of the…
  • 1:20 Review of Columbus
  • 3:46 Dead Reckoning
  • 5:25 True North and Magnetic North
  • 6:49 Celestial Navigation
  • 7:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will explore the use of the compass during Columbus' voyages to the New World. It will highlight the navigational techniques of dead reckoning and celestial navigation. It will also review the voyages of Columbus.

History of the Magnetic Compass

Christopher Columbus had no GPS. Christopher Columbus had no Internet. Christopher Columbus had no travel club. He didn't even have one of those cool big folding maps. But, Christopher Columbus did have a compass, and by golly, it got the job done! Well, it sort of got the job done. Let's just say it got the job done well enough to be the subject of today's lesson, 'How the Compass Helped Columbus.'

In the first half of the 15th century, Prince Henry of Portugal, also known as Henry the Navigator, began encouraging the use of the magnetic compass several decades before Columbus sailed under the Spanish flag. These magnetic compasses became extremely important navigational tools, combining their needles with magnetized lodestones, or pieces of naturally magnetized minerals, to determine a ship's direction in reference to the magnetic north. Prince Henry encouraged cooperation between sailors and mapmakers, hoping to create more accurate maps of the seas.

Review of Columbus

Before we get too deep into the wonders of the compass, let's do a review of the ultra-famous Christopher Columbus. During the 15th and 16th centuries, Europe became enthralled with the idea of overseas exploration. Enter Christopher Columbus, a Portuguese native trained in math, astronomy, cartography, and navigation. While Europeans were sailing south around the Cape of Good Hope to reach Asia, Columbus had a different idea. He believed (although erroneously) that the circumference of the earth was much smaller than others reported it to be. Therefore, a voyage across the seas from Europe to Asia would be relatively easy, so why not sail west? Why not cross the Atlantic and avoid Africa altogether?

Christopher Columbus was well-educated in the art of navigation before his travels.
Christopher Columbus Portrait

After rejections from Portugal, Columbus finally convinced the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, to fund his experiment, their motivation being treasure for themselves and their kingdoms - and the chance to spread Catholicism to new worlds. Columbus' motivation? Well, definitely fame and fortune (since he had negotiated a deal that would give him 10% of all the riches found) - and, of course, the whole spreading of the Catholic faith thing. However, Columbus was also very interested in improving maritime navigation. Listen to this paraphrased excerpt from his journal.

'I propose to construct a new chart for navigating, on which I shall delineate all the sea and lands of the ocean in their proper positions under their bearings; and further, I propose to prepare a book, and to put down all as it were in a picture, by latitude from the equator, and western longitude. Above all, I shall have accomplished much, for I shall forget sleep, and shall work at the business of navigation.'

On August 3, 1492, Columbus and his men set sail across the ocean blue in the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. With him, he took the star of our lesson, the compass, which greatly improved navigational success in the areas of (first) dead reckoning and (second) celestial navigation.

Dead Reckoning

During the times of Columbus, most sailors navigated by dead reckoning. In dead reckoning, the navigator would calculate a current position by using a previous position, measuring the course and the distance traveled in segments. For instance, before leaving port, the navigator measured out his expected course and the distance he would like to travel in that day. He'd then estimate his speed, and from that estimation he'd place a pin on the map, marking where he believed he'd stop at the end of his day. This ending point would be his starting position for the next day.

This dead reckoning method was fraught with danger, especially since a miscalculation one day could spell disaster for all the following days. For instance, if winds began to blow in contrary directions, the course of a ship would also change, making large or small variation in a ship's trajectory. These mistakes, even small ones, would soon become cumulative, causing sailors to be miles and miles away from their expected targets, leaving them adrift at sea with little to no provisions.

Fortunately for Columbus, he had the compass to aid in his dead reckoning navigation. Although it sounds simple and obvious to us, the compass allowed Columbus to keep his fleet pointing in the right direction. Whether it rained, whether winds howled, or whether waves crashed, Columbus had the ability to regain his desired direction.

The compass was helpful in keeping Columbus and his fleet on course.
Compass Kept Columbus Going Straight

True North and Magnetic North

Columbus added to the importance of the compass by being recognized as the first to discover the difference between true north and magnetic north. Along his voyage, Columbus realized his compass did not directly align with the North Star, but was instead always off by a few degrees. On September 17, 1492, his journal reads - and again I'm going to paraphrase it to make it easier to understand -

'The pilots observed the north point, and found that the needles turned a full point to the west of north. So the mariners were alarmed and dejected, and did not give their reason. But the Admiral knew, and ordered that the north should be again observed at dawn. Then they found that the needles were true. The cause was that the star makes the movement, and not the needles.'

The difference between these two points, now known as true north and magnetic north, forms an angle that we now call declination. Although Columbus is credited with this discovery, it's important to mention many do believe it was previously known by other mariners but simply not recorded. Regardless of who really deserves the credit, this was an important discovery that led to a better understanding of the earth's magnetic field and its effects on navigation.

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