The magnetic compass is the oldest instrument for navigation and has been a vital tool for navigators at sea for centuries. The compass allows ships to steer a selected course. By taking bearings of visible objects with a compass, the navigator is also able to fix a ship's position on a chart.
How does a magnetic compass work?
A magnetic compass works because the Earth is like a giant magnet, surrounded by a huge magnetic field. The Earth has two magnetic poles which lie near the North and South poles. The magnetic field of the Earth causes a magnetized 'needle' of iron or steel to swing into a north-south position if it is hung from a thread, or if it is stuck through a straw or piece of wood floating in a bowl of water.
How accurate is the magnetic compass?
As long ago as the 15th century, mariners noticed that the needle of a magnetic compass does not point accurately to Earth's true north. Columbus, for instance was aware of this on his voyages across the Atlantic in the 1490s. Instead, the needle makes an angle with true north, and that angle varies from place to place on the Earth's surface. This means that there is a different magnetic variation for different places on Earth. These variations were investigated on a famous 17th century voyage by the great scientist and astronomer Edmond Halley. It was thought at this time that the longitude of a ship could be found by the compass variation, but this proved to be untrue.
How was the problem of magnetic variation solved?
Variations do not worry navigators now because of the introduction of the gyroscopic compass. It was invented in 1908. This uses a spinning gyroscope which keeps the compass pointing not to the magnetic north, but to Earth's true North. A rapidly spinning gyroscope is at the heart of the gyrocompass. Once the gyroscope is set spinning, it remains pointing in the same direction, regardless of the ship's heaving motion.
Today, a ship anywhere in the world can check its exact position by means of a signal from a satellite in orbit. However, all navigators still have a compass on board as well. Tracy Edwards, who captained the yacht Maiden in the 1989-90 Whitbread Round-the-World Yacht Race, used Navsat (satellite navigation) and found it had so many technical problems that she often used a magnetic compass instead.