The History of the Pocket Compass

Before discovering the compass, navigators looked at the position of the celestial bodies (the sun and north star) to determine the direction of the sea.  In some places, the navigators would use sounding to supplement the navigation.  Every country had its means of navigation.  For instance, the Arabs relied on the foreseeable monsoons and the clear skies to navigate the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf.  Sometimes challenges would arise if the sea weather conditions were continually foggy or overcast and the sea was too deep to use soundings.

The Invention of Compass

In the beginning, the shapes and designs of the compasses were unsophisticated.  But later, scientists were able to illustrate and design beautiful antique compasses.  Many ancient compass designs included the compass rose.  Often, nautical charts and maps included the compass rose.  The compass rose helped to show the wind direction.  In 11th to 14th-century medieval navigation, one had to use the rose compass to navigate smoothly.  According to medieval cartography and ancient Greek meteorological studies, the compass roses were a work of art.  The compass roses featured religious symbols, symbols for different types of wind and were decorated in various colors.


The Chinese developed the first compass more than 2000 years ago.  The Chinese used Lodestone to craft the first compass.  The Lodestone is known for attracting ions.  In those days, Lodestone was a significant magnetised mineral that taught people the importance of magnets.  The scientists created the first compass in 20BC-20AD, China’s Han Dynasty.  ”South Pointing fish” was the name given to the first Chinese compass.  Although, according to historians, the Chinese used the “south-pointing fish” compass for traditional artistic rituals such as feng shui, fortune-telling, and geomancy.  Later, during the Chinese Song Dynasty, the “south-pointing fish” compass was introduced in the shipping sector.

The compass was introduced in Europe in 1157-1217 AD by Alexander Neckam, an English theologian.  According to many historians’ beliefs, the compass was introduced in the west by the Chinese as a gift as there are not enough records to support Neckham’s inventing the compass in Europe.  Nevertheless, the navigators started using the compasses extensively in the 13th century.


In 1232, sailors used the antique nautical compasses of the Ottoman empire to navigate the Persian Gulf successfully.  The design of the Ottoman compasses was similar to the Chinese models, which made the historian conclude that the Chinese exposed the compasses of the Ottomans via the Silk trade route.  Historians have also recorded the uses of ship compasses by Africans and Indians in the 11th to 14th centuries.

The development of the Antique Pocket Compass

As the navigators began to embrace compasses widely, more sophisticated compasses emerged.  The Dry form of compasses was the first invention.  Later in the 17th century, wet compasses were invented.  However, wet compasses were officially legalized in the 19th century.  Initially, the wet compasses were heavy so that navigators would attach them to the ships.

In the 18th century bearing compasses were introduced.  With bearing compasses, navigators would take bearings by aligning lubber lines with the compass.  The bearing compasses included compass roses.  This design shaped the designs of today’s compasses, north, east, south, and west.  A hand compass that featured a lens and viewing prism was introduced in 1885.  In 1902, the Bezard compass was granted an official patent.  The Bezard compass featured a mounted mirror.  The mirror allowed navigators to align the object with the compass while checking the bearing.


In the course of world war I and World War II, compasses were part of the military items.  During these military operations, people adapted to the wet compasses.  Even though the compasses were portable, they were a bit heavy.