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Compasses have been used in one form or another for more than a thousand years. History has it that the Chinese were the first to create a compass and use it for navigation. Their compass used the south pole of the compass as their reference point rather than the north pole used by Europeans.

Significant debate exists whether Europeans developed their compass independently from China or whether the compass was imported from China.

In Europe the compass was used to describe wind direction - referring to eight well-defined winds that were present in the Mediterranean Sea. The Cardinal and Ordinal points on the compass were named by the winds rather than by the directions used today.

For early Europeans, compass points provided a way to describe directions in a colloquial fashion without having to think of direction in terms of degrees around a circle.

In the 13th and 14th centuries, the Italians created a compass with eight wind directions and further sub-divided their compass into a 16-wind and 32-wind compass rose.

The Italians gave each of the wind directions a name that reflected the languages spoken by the Italian seafarers of their time period.

According to Wikipedia:

“This Italianate patois was used to designate the names of the principal winds on the compass rose found in mariners' compasses and portolan charts of the 14th and 15th centuries. The "traditional" names of the eight principal winds are:

(N ) – Tramontana
(NE) – Greco (or Bora in some Venetian sources)
(E) – Levante (sometimes Oriente)
(SE) – Scirocco (or Exaloc in Catalan)
(S) – Ostro (or Mezzogiorno in Venetian)
(SW) – Libeccio (or Garbino, Eissalot in Provençal)
(W) – Ponente (or Zephyrus in Greek)
(NW) – Maestro (or Mistral in Provençal)

Local spelling variations are far more numerous than listed, e.g. Tramutana, Gregale, Grecho, Sirocco, Xaloc, Lebeg, Libezo, Leveche, Mezzodi, Migjorn, Magistro, Mestre.

Traditional compass roses will typically have the initials T, G, L, S, O, L, P, and M on the main points. Portolan charts also colour-coded the compass winds: black for the eight principal winds, green for the eight half-winds, and red for the sixteen quarter-winds.

Each half-wind name is simply a combination of the two principal winds that it bisects, with the shortest name usually placed first.

The table below shows how the 32 compass points are named. Each point has an angular range of ​11 1⁄4 degrees where the azimuth midpoint is the horizontal angular direction (clockwise from north) of the given compass bearing.”

It’s really not surprising that the compass points were named to correspond to prevailing winds found in the Mediterranean since that is where they were sailing their ships.

When the age of Exploration began with boats setting out across the oceans of the world, the Mediterranean winds lost their relevance, and compasses reflected sailing directions rather than wind directions.

The concept of 32 points to the compass persisted, but they were no longer related to direction of the prevailing winds found in the Med.

It’s interesting that early seafarers did not think of direction in terms of degrees. It probably reflects the level of mathematical education of the average seafarer at the time.

A thirty-two point compass with each point having a different name would immediately be understood by anyone who had no knowledge of mathematics and 360 degrees in a circle.

Similarly, telling a mariner that something was four points off the bow would be immediately understood.

The early navigators quickly discovered that their magnetic compass had significant limitations because it pointed toward the magnetic north pole rather than the geographic north pole. The further north they sailed, the less accurate their compass because of the divergence between the poles.

13th century navigators who knew what they were doing could simply point their compass at the north star and figure out how many degrees their compasses were off from true north as they sailed on their voyages of exploration.

The Italian compass started out with wind directions, evolved into sailing directions, was refined into magnetic and true directions, and now we have GPS.

Dr. Dave

Captain Dave - David J. Abbott M.D.





Exit Only

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Save A Tree Bookstore

Although I like the feel of a paper book in my hand, I love trees even more. When people purchase an eBook, they actually save trees and save money as well. Ebooks are less expensive and have no negative impact on the environment. All of Dr. Dave's books are available at Save A Tree Bookstore. Visit the bookstore today and start putting good things into your mind. It's easy to fill your mind with positive things using eBooks. No matter where you are or what you are doing, you can pull out your smart phone or tablet and start reading. You can even use electronic highlighters and make annotations in your eBooks just like paper books.