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A history of navigation



Deep below our great seas and expansive oceans there is an untold history waiting to be discovered. Shipwrecks lie everywhere. They hark back to a time when navigation was barely established leaving men to pray and hope that they would find land.
Today of course, navigating the seas is easy with live ship tracking mobile applications and sophisticated radar communications equipment.
However, if it were not for some of the early inventions in navigation, then the world we know today could be much different.
This article explores the early history of navigation.
Firstly, charts were sketched out to map the coastlines around which a ship would sail. This was obviously fine for travelling around a small island, but totally useless in the open water. Plus these could take a while to produce. If you consider countries like the UK for example, which has a coastline of around 12429 km or 7723 miles, you can begin to appreciate what a daunting task mapping was.
Early sailors used to figure out their location by looking up, and monitoring the heavens. Polaris, or the North Star, was their best indicator of determining north and south (latitude). During the day time, they would take advantage of the position of the sun.
A cross-staff was just the tool for the daytime. The navigator places one end of the main staff against his cheek just below his eye and search for the horizon. Then another arm of the staff would be adjusted to see the sun too. By combining the readings of the sun and the horizon, an angular measurement can be taken by looking up the values in a table.
Later navigators would use a mariner’s astrolabe, made of metal. Its function and operation was much the same as a cross-staff; it measured angles and was held against the eye. Navigators hung it vertically and readings were being taken straight off the device.
Eventually, direction could be told with the use of a magnetised compass. Its introduction in the 11th century dramatically changed the navigation landscape because ship workers now had a directional aid. When combined with a sand, or hour-glass, they then also roughly knew the time of day too.
Critically perseverance and a desire for exploration have made today’s navigational tools the norm; tools that have drastically changed since the early days of navigation.
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