Navigation history. 2013.

Kraków 2013-01-29

The beginnings of navigation.

Compass. 2022. Photo by Karol Placha Hetman
Compass. 2022. Photo by Karol Placha Hetman

VOR / DEM RAD 113.85 MHz aeronautical beacon. 2015 year. Photo by Karol Placha Hetman
VOR / DEM RAD 113.85 MHz aeronautical beacon. 2015 year. Photo by Karol Placha Hetman


Navigation is as old as life on earth. Many animal species already had their innate navigational abilities. For example birds, headed by storks. Man unknowingly began to learn navigation from the moment of his hunting expeditions. Then there were military and commercial expeditions. Already in antiquity, there were the first travelers who described their expeditions. They determined the directions of movement. The first plans began to emerge, followed by maps. As a result, cartography was developed that merged with chronology, i.e. the calendar and time.

Moving by land was not a major problem for man. Rivers were often used on these journeys. Numerous landmarks were also landmarks. It was enough just to remember them while moving forward and find them while moving backwards. So did the first hunters. By the way, paths were formed, which turned into trails over time. Even then, they were unconsciously determining the directions of the world; where the sun rises - east, where the sun sets - west, half day, the sun at most - noon, half of the night - midnight. The sun's directions of the world became important the moment you got lost or moved across desert, savannah, or undifferentiated (permafrost) areas. Anyone who ventured very far from home was considered courageous. The distances of distant trips were counted by the number of days needed to cover a given route. These expeditions enriched communities with further information, and in fact knowledge.

The beginnings of shipping.

Man relatively quickly mastered land navigation, often making use of rivers. It took much longer to learn navigating in water areas. While man learned to build and use boats relatively quickly, it took a long time to go far out to sea. Previous generations made good use of rivers and landmark landmarks along their banks. That is why coastal shipping has developed. In antiquity, people did not go far from the shores, wanting to see the landmarks on land all the time. And when they were not there, those who were on the shore lit fires that were to give as much smoke as possible, which was a landmark. Boats traveled on the Red Sea much earlier, before the pyramids were built. Larger boats (ships) in the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf appeared around 7,000 B.C. Mostly they were fishing vessels, but some were already trading and sometimes their crews were engaged in robbery.

The seas where these first ships appeared were inland seas, where the winds blow alternately and where often deathly silence lasts for days. That is why ships developed which were powered by oars, which were moved by rowers. They were often slaves, prisoners of war, prisoners, that is, galley slaves. Such ships immediately sailed to the nearest port when bad weather approached.

But navigating the open waters was quite a challenge. Humanity has had the most experience in the Mediterranean. Sailing along the shore, you reached places on the opposite side. Routes and landmarks were described. The acquired knowledge was passed on from generation to generation. In time, courses were set across the sea, guided by the sides of the world, which were determined by the sun. The stimulus for the development of shipping, and with it navigation, was maritime transport. Because it was realized that transport by ships equipped with sails was cheaper and faster than land transport. Most importantly, it required fewer people and completely eliminated draft animals. We are already dealing here with the cost-effect relationship. Yes, fewer people were involved, but they must have had much more knowledge, precisely in the subject of navigation. The next step was to master navigation overnight.


According to the known history, the Cretans were the first community that mastered shipping in a modern way. The rule of the sea belonged to Crete at the turn of the 3rd and 2nd millennium BC. About the 7th century BC, Crete was then the center of trade in the Mediterranean Sea. But due to the stronger Semitic peoples, the development of the Cretan empire was stunted. To this day, Cretans emphasize their separateness from other nations, even Greek, in the state in which they are within their borders.

The direct heirs of the Cretans were the Achaeans of Mycenaean Greece, whose maritime expansion began in the 15th century BCE, when the power of Crete collapsed. Ships under the Egyptian flag then penetrated mainly the waters of the Red Sea.

Phoenicians (Canaanites).

The Phoenicians are better known. With the fall of the Mycenaean culture at the end of the 2nd millennium BCE, the period of the reign of the Phoenicians began at sea, and they are today called the best sailors of antiquity. The ancients were known for their courage and entrepreneurship that made them navigate the open ocean and discover new lands. They were at the forefront of shipbuilding, which allowed them to move around the entire Mediterranean. The Phoenicians, as a Semitic people, settled in the coastal areas of today's Lebanon and Syria, from around the 3rd millennium BC. The Phoenicians called themselves Canaanites. This name is also supported by the term "kena'ani" in the Hebrew language, which has assumed a secondary meaning as "merchant". Because they lived in city-states, including Sidon, they are often referred to as the Sidonians in the Old Testament. The Phoenicians were good sailors, but it was only after the fall of the Cretan power that the laurel of precedence passed to the Phoenicians (after the 12th century BC). The Phoenicians are credited with the discovery and implementation of many inventions. For example; the invention of money, the processing of non-ferrous metals, or the processing of glass. However, it seems that the main achievement of the Phoenicians was the dissemination of these inventions. While trading, they transported silver, tin, lead, copper and gold. The Phoenicians are granted the invention of the syllable script, which allowed them to record information in this form, and additionally propagated this writing. The Phoenicians first reached Cyprus, and then Sicily, Malta, Sardinia, Corsica, and North Africa (Carthage) and Gadessa (today Cadiz) in Spain. Later, the Phoenicians, or rather the Carthaginians, sailed around Africa, discovered the Canary Islands and Madeira, most likely also the Azores and Cape Verde. There are assumptions that the Carthaginians reached the coast of Brazil. If so, they must have known the phenomenon of the Northeast trade wind, which for much of the year blows south-west, that is, towards the Brazilian coast. It was also thanks to this wind that Christopher Columbus reached the Central American Islands from the Canary Islands.

The Greeks, Phoenicians, and then the Carthaginians were the first to navigate at night. Navigating at night meant they could go on expeditions lasting several days, and then even weeks. It also meant that they could determine their location from the positions of the sun and stars, and above all, determine the directions of the world. In this way, they created a navigation that we refer to as counting navigation. They were the first to collect information about constant winds and sea currents. About dangerous and friendly weather phenomena. With their own writing, they were able to record this information and pass it on to future generations.

The first sailors moored their boats in the natural bends of rivers or in the shallows. The boats were light, so they were usually pulled ashore. As the size of vessels and the distance they were sent increased, as well as the requirements placed on them, natural harbors began to be used as safer harbors. This is how the first ports were created, the size of which depended on the number of units served. For larger units, anchorages were organized in bays. As shipping developed, these first ports expanded. Port basins were built, port administration buildings, arsenals, warehouses, lighthouses, and fortified walls were erected for protection from the land side. The Phoenicians were the first great maritime architects of the ancient world. Established as a number of stopping points, the harbors later became prosperous colonies under their rule. It is worth noting that the Phoenicians chose places, as a rule, similar to their native lands for their seats.


Over time, Carthage, rivaling the Romans, lost its palm of precedence. It is suspected that the Romans took all of the Carthaginians' knowledge of shipping and navigation and developed it further. It is said that we owe the Romans the first books describing the known sea routes. They described landmarks, anchorages, other harbors, bays and danger zones. They gave approximate distances between them. We call these books Periplus (Greek περίπλους, literally navigate around). However, the first known such manuscript was written around the 4th century BC. It is called "Periplus Pseudo-Scylaxa" and describes the coast of the Iberian and Apennine Peninsulas, it was written by the Phoenicians. In the 1st century BC, the document "Periplus Maris Erythraei" was written, which describes the coast of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, and was written by a Greek merchant. But the fact is that the Romans compiled a lot of these books, and on their basis today's locations for waters around the world were created.

Apart from the Red Sea, which is nothing special, the first sea completely dominated by man was the Mediterranean Sea. This was done by the Romans who in the 1st century BCE they could sail on it from the origin to the destination port without calling at intermediate ports. The Periplus books undoubtedly contributed to this, as well as the slow but systematic development of navigational aids. The Black Sea was conquered. Gradually, sailors ventured into the North Sea and the Baltic Sea.


The first such navigational aid was the Log (from English: log, log, log, clearing). The Log instrument determines the speed of the vessel and therefore the distance traveled. It consisted of a wooden block with a rope attached to it, on which knots were tied at equal distances. The block was thrown overboard and the moving knots from the block, which, acting as a brake, moved away per unit time, were counted. The number of knots counted was a unit of speed. Time was measured with an hourglass. Therefore, to this day, the speed of watercrafts, as well as flying, is given in knots (wicks), i.e. nautical miles per hour.

Compass and box compass.

Magnetite is a mineral from the oxide group and belongs to the group of spinels (iron). It is a very common and extremely widespread mineral. The physical properties of magnetite pieces were discovered relatively early. One of its essential features is alignment with the Earth's magnetic field force lines. Figures made of magnetite on a thread always pointed north. Such figurines were made in China. It is believed that they came from China to Europe. But the magnetis stone was already known to the ancient Greeks. The name comes from the former Greek city of Magnesia (now Manisa), today in Turkey. The term magnet was introduced in 1845 (W. Haidinger). So it's possible that these discoveries were independent.

The magnetite was framed in wood and put on the water. Such an instrument was oriented towards the north. In the 13th century (around 1200), Italian sailors replaced the floating "needle" with a new device. It was a beech wood box with a needle locked inside. Hence the name of the compass. Beech in Latin is "buxus". A little later, a graduation in degrees was placed under the needle at the bottom of the box. This allowed not only to designate the northern direction, but also intermediate directions. Such an instrument was called a compass (from the Italian "compaso" - graduation). In topography, it is assumed that a compass is a box graduated in degrees, containing a suspended magnetic needle. The compass, on the other hand, is a box with a magnetic needle and a scale, and equipped with an aiming device that helps to determine the azimuth. It can be, for example, a movable ring with a bow tie and a rear sight. Sometimes a mirror is placed in the cover of the compass to help you aim and control the magnetic needle at the same time.

Compass. 2022. Photo by Karol Placha Hetman
Compass. 2022. Photo by Karol Placha Hetman

Nautical maps. Navigation maps.

The first common nautical charts appeared in Roman times. They were called rumba maps. They were based on the directions of the world drawn on the wind rose. The wind rose, or practically the circle around it, was divided into 32 parts, called rumbas. At that time, the degrees, i.e. the division of the circle into 360 degrees, were not known. Simpler maps were divided into 8 or 16 rumbs.

32 rumba results from the following breakdown; We divide the circle into 4 quarters. Each quarter is for a half, and each half is for the next two parts, and each of these parts is for the next halves, and that's it. In total, 32 identical parts were created. It was not divided further because it was unnecessary and blurred the Rose of the winds.

In the 12th century (Middle Ages), accurate nautical charts called compass maps appear. The reason for their creation was the appearance of a compass, which was much easier to use than a magnetic needle set in wood.

Compass maps, later called navigational maps, are the result of the experience of many generations, gained during numerous sea voyages in the Mediterranean Sea and the adjacent Atlantic waters. Nautical compass charts, usually drawn up for shipping purposes, originally did not have a cartographic grid composed of meridians and parallels. Their characteristic feature were direction lines radiating out (in line with the Wind Rose) from important points, which were large cities and large ports. These lines formed a characteristic grid. The coastline, and thus the shape of the lands, was presented relatively faithfully. Following this grid, you reached your destination without the need to sail along the banks.

Typical navigation maps had to wait for the great geographical discoveries and the spread of paper and printing. And also the emergence of the geographic network known to us today.

Written by Karol Placha Hetman