History of Navigation


First Compass

206 B.C.

The first compass was made in China, around 200 B.C. It was used first as an instrument in Chinese fortune-telling and divination. It was used for maritime investigation from around 1117 A.D. onward. The compass was first used by Europeans in 1190 A.D.

First Map

200 B.C.

The first map of earth was created in 200 B.C.

Modernised Compass

700 A.D.

The modern compass was created in 700. Magnetic needles began to replace the much bulkier spoon-shaped compasses from 200 B.C. These were also believed to have been invented by the Chinese.


700 A.D.

Written records of Astronavigation date back to the 8th century, around the time of Homer's Odyssey, where Calypso tells Odysseus to keep the bear constellation (Ursa Major) on his left hand side and Orion as he sailed from the island, to open ocean.



The Kamal was invented around the late 9th century, by Arab navigators, and was later adopted by the Chinese and Indian navigators. The Kamal consists of a wooden block around 5.1cm by 2.5cm to which a string with several equally spaced knots is attached through a hole it's centre. It is used to measure the altitudes and latitudes of the stars.

The Icelandic Spar

1200 A.D.

The Icelandic Spar was discovered in a shipwreck in 1592. Chemical analysis traced the stone back to Iceland, and confirmed it as an Icelandic Spar. The Icelandic Spar is thought to have been the fabled "sunstone" used by Vikings to navigate in cloudy weather. The stones were used to locate the sun. The stone originates from Iceland, hence the name. The rhombohedral shape of calcite means that they can refract light in such a way that it creates a double image. However, if held in the correct position, the double image merges to become a single picture. It is by using this method Vikings are believed to have navigated over open ocean.



The first telescope was created in 1608, and has been used upon ships to see long-distance for hundreds of years until the invention of the much smaller binoculars (now a requirement aboard naval ships).



The sextant was invented by mathematician John Hadley. The sextant is a navigation instrument used to measure distance between two visible objects. The most commonly use method of measurement using the sextant is by measuring the distance between a celestial body and the horizon to determine position.

Seagoing Chronometer


The seagoing chronometer was invented by John Harrison in the 18th century. It consists of a timepiece that is precise and accurate enough to be used as a portable time standard. it was used to determine longitude by the process of celestial navigation.

Navigational Lights


In 1838 the United States of America introduced navigational lights aboard boats. This was adopted by the UK in 1849. By 1897, navigational lights were a requirement of all boats, big or small.

Prime Meridian


An international agreement introduced the Prime Meridian, located at 0° longitude, as a basis for establishing coordinates.

Gyro Compass


The first Gyrocompass was a poorly made device created in 1885. It was later perfected by Hermann Anschütz-Kaempfe in 1906. It is currently a requirement for naval ships.
The gyrocompass is unlike the magnetic compass because it does not use an external magnetic field. The gyrocompass is more accurate than the magnetic compass because it points in the direction of the earth's axis and cannot be disturbed by nearby metal such as the hull of a ship.



The first radio was created in Italy. They are used on board ships to communicate via long-distances.

Echo Sounder


Echo sounding was invented by Alexander Behm. Echo sounding is a device that determines depth and distance by using sound waves. It is currently used on most modern ships.

Aircraft and Ship Radar


In 1934, researchers in the Naval Research Lavatory started experimenting with the way that radio waves would bounce off objects, after they noticed that occasionally other ships would block the path of the radio while at sea. In 1934 Robert Page created an instrument able to detect nearby aircraft and ships for navy boats.

Long-Distance Radar


The first long-range navigation device was created so a ships position could be located from land by using radio waves.

Rate of Turn Indicator (ROTI)


A ROTI or Rate of Turn Indicator is a device aboard modern ships that shows the rate at which a vessel is turning. ROTIs are mostly used upon naval ships.
In 1960 the SOLAS Convention was adopted into force by 1965. In Section V Regulation 19 of the Convention, it states that "All ships of 50,000 gross tonnage and upwards shall, in addition to meeting the requirements of paragraph 2.8, have: 2.9.1 a rate of turn indicator".

Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS)


The ECDIS is a development in the navigational chart system used in naval ships and vessels. The ECDIS is a requirement under the SOLAS Convention.
With the introduction of an electronic chart system, it has become easier to navigate by pinpointing locations and attaining directions.


January 1978

GPS was created when 22 satellites were built specifically for the purpose of sending position and coordinate data to ships at sea. These satellites have been replaced since, as they eventually stopped working.

Modernised Satellites and GPS

1989 - 1995

Modern satellites launched into orbit around Earth mean that countries around the world have access to service such as internet and data, which can be used to transfer information across the globe instantaneously.
GPS, or global positioning system, is a satellite-based navigation system. The GPS system is controlled by the U.S. government's Department of Defence, however, it is open to the public for use. The earliest GPS system was launched between 1978 and 1985 with 11 satellites. It now consists of about 24 satellites that were launched into orbit in 1995. The GPS is a highly accurate navigation tool.

Ship Log


Hard copy log books are commonly used on vehicles such as planes and ships. They hold useful data about the ship with information such as it's history, capacity and maintenance.

Voyage Data Recorder (VDR)


The VDR is very closely akin to a Black Box Flight Recorder. It is used to record and store vital information about the ship and it's surroundings. The VDR became a necessity for all ships travelling long-distance.