A History of Finding Our Way: 15 Pre-Google Maps Navigation Tools

Early seafarers would have believed our smartphones were using black magic.
Chris Young
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How did we ever survive without Google Maps and GPS? We did pretty well as it turns out. Though we are so reliant today on our smartphones to find our way around, humanity has created many intricately designed and ingenious tools for navigation over the years. 

Here are a few impressive tools and methods, dating as far back as the prehistoric times, that have been used throughout history.


1. Follow the clouds

As they had no modern-day tools and navigation was in its infancy, the first seafarers kept close to land. Keeping an eye on landmarks on the coast was the easiest way to make sure that they wouldn't go astray.

Primitive methods were developed over time via simple observation. Low-lying clouds, for example, tend to form over land and are a good indicator that you are approaching land.

2. Early star navigation

Though keeping an eye on land is a lot harder when it gets dark at nighttime, thankfully burning balls of gas thousands and millions of light-years away are great indicators to help us find our way.

Early sailors used stars to navigate at nighttime. Mariners used simple methods such as measuring the distance of a star from the horizon using their fingers at arm's length. Depending on the height the star was at, at a given time of the year, they would know approximately where they were. 

3. Hungry birds lead you to land

Though still relatively primitive, sailors continued to find innovative ways to find land when out at sea. As PBS points out, the Norsemen had to find a way to find land without using stars, as the stars are covered for months on end at high latitudes by cloudy weather.

One method, in particular, was effective though a little cruel. A Norwegian sailor known as Raven-Floki, the first Norseman to sail to Iceland, would deliberately starve crows aboard his ship. When he felt he was approaching land, he would release the crows which would fly in a straight line to the nearest land, indicating the route his ship should follow.

Other methods also involved birds. For example, if a sailor saw a bird flying in a straight line with its beak full that would mean it was headed towards land. If its beak was empty it would be headed to sea to catch its food.

4. Depth sounding

Another early method used was that of depth sounding. Sailors would drop a lead line into the water in order to measure the depth of the sea. Knowing how far down it went, would give them a good indication as to how far from land they were.

Known as one of the oldest navigation tools in history, the lead line is thought to have originated in Ancient Egypt. The lead line was made using a hollow weight made of lead. A small ball of animal fat would be used to collect material from the ocean floor, giving an even more detailed indication of location.

5. Star charts

The oldest star chart known to man might be 32,500 years old. The chart, which contains a depiction of the Orion constellation, was discovered in Germany in 1979, though it is believed to have Asian origin.

A History of Finding Our Way: 15 Pre-Google Maps Navigation Tools
A celestial map from 1670, by the Dutch cartographer Frederik de Wit, Source: Wikimedia Commons

As star navigation became more sophisticated, the need arose to keep charts of the stars. These charts, which are typically divided into easy-to-read grids, greatly helped navigators to locate where they were.

6. The compass

The compass originated in the Han dynasty in China between 300 and 200 BC, and it immediately became a key instrument in navigation. As you most likely know, the compass uses the magnetic poles of the Earth to find the magnetic north.

The first compasses were made of lodestone, a naturally magnetized iron ore. Later, compasses used iron needles that were magnetized when struck with a lodestone. It is believed that, when the compass first came to the west, many sailors believed it utilized black magic. That's why many early compasses were kept in secretive wooden cases.

The modern-day compass is typically filled with a liquid — lamp oil, white spirits, purified kerosene, and ethyl alcohol are all common.

7. The Ramsden Sextant

The sextant was invented in the 18th century by British mathematical instrument makers. It permitted sailors to find their position with an accuracy never seen before.

It became an indispensable tool in celestial navigation, as it allowed mariners to determine the angle of a celestial body above the horizon, meaning they could accurately determine their latitude.

A History of Finding Our Way: 15 Pre-Google Maps Navigation Tools
Source: Wikimedia Commons

British mathematician and astronomer Jesse Ramsden devised a machine to divide the scale on the sextant with incredible precision, helping navigators to find their way with an accuracy that was not previously manageable.

8. The marine chronometer: a revolution in navigation

Though the sextant helped mariners to accurately measure their latitude, longitude was still a problem until the marine chronometer was successfully devised by John Harrison in 1735.

Marine chronometers are key-wound, spring-driven timekeepers that completely changed the world of naval, and later aerial, navigation. By allowing sailors to know the exact time of their current location, it allowed them to measure their longitude as well as their latitude. 

A History of Finding Our Way: 15 Pre-Google Maps Navigation Tools
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The marine chronometer has been cited as a key development that allowed colonization to gain pace, thanks to the way it allowed sailors to accurately navigate the globe — make of that what you will.

9. Bygrave Position-Line Slide Rule

In the early days of aviation, it was incredibly difficult to determine one's location when flying in a small open cockpit with wind speeds of over 160 kilometers (100 miles) per hour.

A History of Finding Our Way: 15 Pre-Google Maps Navigation Tools
Source: Wikimedia Commons

That's why Capt. L.C. Bygrave developed a slide rule for navigation shortly after the First World War. It made celestial computations much quicker and was used on the first solo flight from New Zealand to Australia in 1930.

10. Gyroscopic compass

The gyroscopic compass, also known as a gyrocompass, was first made in 1908. Its main benefit over a magnetic compass is that the gyrocompass is unaffected by the Earth's magnetic field, and is also not affected by materials such as the steel hulls of ships, which are known to distort the magnetic field.

Gyrocompasses use a gyroscope, a device that is found in today's smartphones, to always point to true north, which is distinct from, and more navigationally useful than the magnetic north.

11. Radar

Radar is short for "radio detection and ranging." The first radar system was developed in 1935 and was used to locate objects beyond the range of vision. By projecting radio waves into the distance, radar picked up on objects far away when the waves came bouncing back.

File:Rotating marine radar - rotating waveguide antenna.gif
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Radar is still used on many ships to determine where other ships or land are located under low-visibility conditions.

A History of Finding Our Way: 15 Pre-Google Maps Navigation Tools
Source: NOAA's National Weather Service/ Wikimedia Commons

It can even be used to map out and navigate entire storms, as in the case of the image Hurricane Abby (above) taken in 1960. 

12. Loran

The Long Range Navigation system (Loran) was developed by the U.S. navy between 1940 and 1943. The system uses pulsed radio transmissions from different stations to accurately locate a ship's position.

Essentially, it would use separate towers to send out a long-range radio transmission. Objects between these towers could be accurately located. Though the Loran system was prominently used in the late 1900s, it was quickly replaced by technologies that are prevalent today. 

13. Satellites and early GPS

The global positioning system (GPS) is today by far the most prevalent method of navigation. In the late 20th century, the GPS system largely replaced Loran. It uses a similar method to Loran, however, instead of using towers positioned on Earth, the signals used to pinpoint a device's location comes from satellites.

A History of Finding Our Way: 15 Pre-Google Maps Navigation Tools
A visual representation of GPS's 24 satellite constellation. The red lines indicate the number of satellites in view from Earth from one specific location, Source: Paulsava/Wikimedia Commons

As of February 2019, there are 31 satellites in the GPS constellation, 27 of which are used at a given time with the rest on standby in case any malfunction occurs. The standard accuracy of GPS can locate someone within about 15 meters.

The technology was built largely thanks to NASA. In its early days, researchers at NASA used their expertise in tracking radio signals from quasars, in order to develop the technology that we know today.

A History of Finding Our Way: 15 Pre-Google Maps Navigation Tools
Quasars are some of the universe's brightest objects, Source: NASA/ESA

Today, thanks to the combination of two technologies — the smartphone and GPS — the modern person largely takes easy navigation for granted. While we can take out our smartphone and receive satellite signals that tell us our location on Earth at the click of a button, early explorers unsuccessfully struggled to take longitudinal readings by telling the time using pendulum clocks aboard swaying ships. How far we have come.

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