Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Compass by Alan Gurney

book cover

by Alan Gurney

Hardback: 288 pages
Publisher: W. W. Norton
First Released: 2004

Source: From a library book sale.

Book Description from Publisher's Website:
Compass chronicles the misadventures of those who attempted to perfect the magnetic compass—so precious to sixteenth-century seamen that, by law, any man found tampering with it had his hand pinned to the mast with a dagger. From the time man first took to the seas until only one thousand years ago, sight and winds were the sailor's only navigational aids. It was not until the development of the compass that maps and charts could be used with any accuracy—even so, it would be hundreds of years and thousands of shipwrecks before the marvelous instrument was perfected. And its history up to modern times is filled with the stories of disasters that befell sailors who misused it. In this page-turning history of man's search for reliable navigation of treacherous sea routes around the globe, Alan Gurney brings to life the instrument Victor Hugo called "the soul of the ship."

Compass tells the impressive story of the development of the marine magnetic compass, starting at about 1187 AD and going into modern times. The movement of the ship and the iron used in building the ship, in ship-board weapons, and in items stored on board caused no end of havoc to the magnetic compass' ability to correctly point toward magnetic north. As ship building techniques changed, new ways of correcting for these problems had to be devised. This book described these developments as well as scientific sea-voyages done to discover what the source of these problems was and some information about other methods of marine navigation. Some of this information overlapped a bit with the story told in Longitude by Dava Sobel.

There were some black and white illustrations--mainly of the various compass types and maps related to the solving of the compass deviation problem. Since details about the scientific (compass-focused) voyages were included, it would have been nice to have a map showing the route of these voyages. However, I could generally follow the route described without a map.

The author assumed the reader had a certain familiarity with ships and the sea, so he would define those terms only once and not very clearly. The book also focused on the developments in the compass from the perspective of Britain, only briefly mentioning what the rest of the world was doing with compasses.

The book was written in a conversational style and, overall, I found the book enjoyable and well-written. It seemed aimed toward people who use a marine compass--to increase their appreciation for it--but the book will probably also appeal to those who read and enjoyed Longitude and to those who like reading about how different technologies have developed.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt from Chapter One
The cry of "Breakers ahead!" was the first warning that the navigating officers had made a dreadful mistake in their dead reckoning, or, in the mordant Spanish equivalent, their navegacion de fantasia.

Minutes later, in the howling dark of an autumn night, four ships of a Royal Navy fleet were mastless hulks being pounded to pieces between the hammer blows of the Atlantic breakers and the anvil of the Scilly Islands' granite reefs. Some two thousand men and officers from HMS Association, Eagle, Firebrand, and Romney died on that night of October 23, 1707. One more vessel, HMS St. George, struck hard but surged clear and survived.

Among the drowned was the fleet's portly, florid-faced commander, the fifty-seven-year-old Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell. His body was found washed ashore in a sandy bay some seven miles from the wreck. Legend has it that a local woman, thirty years later, made a death-bed confession that she had found a waterlogged Sir Cloudsley unconscious on the shore, and then helped him into eternity for the sake of the diamond and emerald rings on his fingers.

The death by drowning of two thousand men and the loss of ships is still considered the worse shipwreck disaster ever suffered by the Royal Navy. It led the British government, by a 1714 Act of Parliament, to create the Board of Longitude and its financial prizes for anyone discovering a "practicable and useful" method of determining a ship's longitude at sea. The end result was threefold: the publishing of accurate astronomical tables for calculating the lunar distance method of finding longitude; John Hadley's reflecting quadrant for the accurate measurement of lunar distances; and John Harrison's famous marine chronometer.

Ironically enough, the shipwreck disaster was not so much a matter of longitude but more a matter of latitude, inaccurate charts, an unknown current, and shoddy compasses.

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