History of Navigation Methods used by Man

For millenniums, humans have navigated vast expanses of land and sea in their quest to explore, discover, trade and wage war.

From using highly inaccurate methods to achieving immense preciseness in the art of navigation, mankind has completely revolutionized the way humans travel at sea and land alike.

Man’s motivation for achieving advances in effective navigation varied at different periods in history, however, the struggle to attain maximum accuracy remained.

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Dating back to 8040-7510 B.C, the Pesse Canoe was unearthed in Netherlands during the excavation of a highway. It is the oldest boat that we can actually see and touch, and its discovery certainly suggests that our ancestors may have been at sea far before than we had imagined.

Let us then take a look at the evolution of navigation; from the celestial method used by early voyagers to the modern-day global positioning system (GPS) initiated by the United States.

Celestial Navigation 

Celestial navigation, also known as astronavigation, is a method which was used by the Phoenician sailors in 2000 B.C. It’s a mode of navigation in which, using the position of the sun, stars and other celestial bodies, a navigator can determine his exact present physical position in the space or on the surface of the earth.

Through the help of the celestial mode, navigators determined the distance traveled from one point to another by multiplying the time underway by the speed of the vessel.

But there was a catch. Since time was measured by a sandglass and speed was estimated by watching pieces of seaweed pass by the hull, this early method of navigation proved to be highly ineffective.

Mariner’s Compass

The mariner’s compass was one of the earliest tools of navigation invented by humans. It was initially used by sailors when hazy weather conditions made it difficult to navigate by judging the altitude of the sun or the position of the North Star.

However, navigators at the time found the mariner’s compass to be highly inconsistent as it pointed to the magnetic north pole, not true north.

Since seafarers at the time could not understand magnetic variations, the mariner’s compass’ readings were not relied upon and the tool was dumped by sailors when they had to navigate through an unknown area.

The Astrolable 

Invented in ancient Greece, the astrolable was first used by astronomers to estimate the time and was brought into use by seafarers in the fifteenth century to determine the latitude by measuring the position of the sun and stars.

Throughout all this time, the tools to estimate the latitude were widely available; however, longitude was more elusive, and could only be vaguely estimated.

Longitude was estimated by comparing the time-of-day difference between the starting location and the current location, but up until the eighteenth century even the most accurate clocks could lose up to 10 minutes per day, which could lead to inaccuracies of up to 150 miles or more.

However, the key to determining the exact longitude at a point in time (how far east or west they were located) lay in the invention of a high-precision-watch, also known as a chronometer.

The invention of a chronometer was considered so indispensable that countries offered prizes for the invention of an accurate high-precision timekeeping device. Finally, the British prize was won by John Harrison in the mid-eighteenth century for his seagoing chronometer accurate to one-tenth of a second per day.

The Prime Meridian and Radio Waves 

The meridian of Greenwich, England was adopted as the prime meridian after international consensus in 1884. Before longitude was defined to be 0 at the prime meridian, all seafaring nations had their separate prime meridians, consequently making longitude different on charts created in other countries.

The chronometer remained an expensive but indispensable navigational tool until radio waves became universal, after which a plain old wristwatch was all that was required to determine the longitude with accuracy.

The twentieth century is by far the most significant period in the history of navigation.

It won’t be an overstatement if one says that the twentieth century revolutionized the way navigation works, with inventions such as radar, radio beacons, gyroscopic compasses and global positioning systems being accomplished in this 100-year period of rapid technological advances.

The Global Positioning System 

The GPS was initiated by Washington in 1973 and is currently operated and maintained by the United States Department of Justice.

Comprising of 24 satellites, the GPS provides accurate positioning to within about 30 feet as well as velocity and time worldwide in any weather conditions. Some GPS systems can also produce results as accurate as a matter of a single feet.

It’s widely assumed that the GPS refers to just any satellite navigation system in the world; however, the term ‘GPS’ refers to the system that is solely operated by the United States.

Other countries have their separate satellite networks, such as China’s BeiDou Navigation Satellite System, the European Union’s Galileo and Russia’s GLONASS.

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