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A compass is an instrument used for navigation and orientation that shows direction relative to the geographic cardinal directions (or points). Usually, a diagram called a compass rose shows the directions north, south, east, and west on the compass face as abbreviated initials. When the compass is used, the rose can be aligned with the corresponding geographic directions; for example, the "N" mark on the rose points northward. Compasses often display markings for angles in degrees in addition to (or sometimes instead of) the rose. North corresponds to 0°, and the angles increase clockwise, so east is 90° degrees, south is 180°, and west is 270°. These numbers allow the compass to show magnetic North azimuths or true North azimuths or bearings, which are commonly stated in this notation. If magnetic declination between the magnetic North and true North at latitude angle and longitude angle is known, then direction of magnetic North also gives direction of true North.

Among the Four Great Inventions, the magnetic compass was first invented as a device for divination as early as the Chinese Han Dynasty (since c. 206 BC),[1][2] and later adopted for navigation by the Song Dynasty Chinese during the 11th century.[3][4][5] The first usage of a compass recorded in Western Europe and the Islamic world occurred around 1190.[6][7]

Magnetic compass

The magnetic compass is the most familiar compass type.

In navigation, directions on maps are usually expressed with reference to geographical or true north, the direction toward the Geographical North Pole, the rotation axis of the Earth. Depending on where the compass is located on the surface of the Earth the angle between true north and magnetic north, called magnetic declination can vary widely with geographic location. The local magnetic declination is given on most maps, to allow the map to be oriented with a compass parallel to true north. The locations of the Earth's magnetic poles slowly change with time, which is referred to as geomagnetic secular variation. The effect of this means a map with the latest declination information should be used.[9] Some magnetic compasses include means to manually compensate for the magnetic declination, so that the compass shows true directions.

Non-magnetic compasses

There are other ways to find north than the use of magnetism, and from a navigational point of view a total of seven possible ways exist[10] (where magnetism is one of the seven).

A gyrocompass is similar to a gyroscope. It is a non-magnetic compass that finds true north by using an (electrically powered) fast-spinning wheel and friction forces in order to exploit the rotation of the Earth. Gyrocompasses are widely used on ships. They have two main advantages over magnetic compasses:

  • they find true north, i.e., the direction of Earth's rotational axis, as opposed to magnetic north,
  • they are not affected by ferromagnetic metal (including iron, steel, cobalt, nickel, and various alloys) in a ship's hull. (No compass is affected by nonferromagnetic metal, although a magnetic compass will be affected by any kind of wires with electric current passing through them.)

Large ships typically rely on a gyrocompass, using the magnetic compass only as a backup.

GPS receivers using two or more antennae mounted separately and blending the data with an inertial motion unit (IMU) can now achieve 0.02° in heading accuracy and have startup times in seconds rather than hours for gyrocompass systems. The devices accurately determine the positions (latitudes, longitudes and altitude) of the antennae on the Earth, from which the cardinal directions can be calculated. Manufactured primarily for maritime and aviation applications, they can also detect pitch and roll of ships. Small, portable GPS receivers with only a single antenna can also determine directions if they are being moved, even if only at walking pace. By accurately determining its position on the Earth at times a few seconds apart, the device can calculate its speed and the true bearing (relative to true north

GPS compasses share the main advantages of gyrocompasses.


The first compasses in ancient Han dynasty China were made of lodestone, a naturally magnetized ore of iron.[2][11] The compass was later used for navigation during the Song Dynasty of the 11th century.[12] Later compasses were made of iron needles, magnetized by striking them with a lodestone. Dry compasses began to appear around 1300 in Medieval Europe and the Islamic world.[13][7] This was supplanted in the early 20th century by the liquid-filled magnetic compass.[14]

Modern compasses

Modern compasses usually use a magnetized needle or dial inside a capsule completely filled with a liquid (lamp oil, mineral oil, white spirits, purified kerosene, or ethyl alcohol are common).

Many modern compasses incorporate a baseplate and protractor tool, and are referred to variously as "orienteering", "baseplate", "map compass" or "protractor" designs. This type of compass uses a separate magnetized needle inside a rotating capsule, an orienting "box" or gate for aligning the needle with magnetic north, a transparent base containing map orienting lines, and a bezel (outer dial) marked in degrees or other units of angular measurement.[17]The%20Ultimate%20Deser]] The capsule is mounted in a transparent baseplate containing a (DOT) indicator for use in taking bearings directly from a map.[17]

Other features found on modern orienteering compasses are map and romer scales for measuring distances and plotting positions on maps, luminous markings on the face or bezels, various sighting mechanisms (mirror, prism, etc.) for taking bearings of distant objects with greater precision, gimbal-mounted, "global" needles for use in differing hemispheres, special rare-earth magnets to stabilize compass needles, adjustable declination for obtaining instant true bearings without resorting to arithmetic, and devices such as inclinometers for measuring gradients.[17] topographic map]], a land navigation technique known as .[19]

The military forces of a few nations, notably the United States Army, continue to issue field compasses with magnetized compass dials or cards instead of needles.

The U.S. M-1950 military lensatic compass does not use a liquid-filled capsule as a damping mechanism, but rather electromagnetic induction to control oscillation of its magnetized card. A "deep-well" design is used to allow the compass to be used globally with a card tilt of up to 8 degrees without impairing accuracy.[22] As induction forces provide less damping than fluid-filled designs, a needle lock is fitted to the compass to reduce wear, operated by the folding action of the rear sight/lens holder. The use of air-filled induction compasses has declined over the years, as they may become inoperative or inaccurate in freezing temperatures or extremely humid environments due to condensation or water ingress.[23]

Some military compasses, like the U.S. M-1950 (Cammenga 3H) military lensatic compass, the Silva 4b Militaire, and the Suunto M-5N(T) contain the radioactive material tritium (31H) and a combination of phosphors.[24] The U.S. M-1950 equipped with self-luminous lighting contains 120 mCi (millicuries) of tritium. The purpose of the tritium and phosphors is to provide illumination for the compass, via radioluminescent tritium illumination, which does not require the compass to be "recharged" by sunlight or artificial light.[25] However, tritium has a half-life of only about 12 years,[26] so a compass that contains 120 mCi of tritium when new will contain only 60 when it is 12 years old, 30 when it is 24 years old, and so on. Consequently, the illumination of the display will fade.

Mariners' compasses can have two or more magnets permanently attached to a compass card, which moves freely on a pivot.

A thumb compass is a type of compass commonly used in orienteering, a sport in which map reading and terrain association are paramount. Consequently, most thumb compasses have minimal or no degree markings at all, and are normally used only to orient the map to magnetic north. An oversized rectangular needle or north indicator aids visibility. Thumb compasses are also often transparent so that an orienteer can hold a map in the hand with the compass and see the map through the compass. The best models use rare-earth magnets to reduce needle settling time to 1 second or less.

Small compasses found in clocks, mobile phones, and other electronic devices are solid-state microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) compasses, usually built out of two or three magnetic field sensors that provide data for a microprocessor. Often, the device is a discrete component which outputs either a digital or analog signal proportional to its orientation. This signal is interpreted by a controller or microprocessor and either used internally, or sent to a display unit. The sensor uses highly calibrated internal electronics to measure the response of the device to the Earth's magnetic field.

Apart from navigational compasses, other specialty compasses have also been designed to accommodate specific uses.

  • Qibla compass, which is used by Muslims to show the direction to Mecca for prayers.
  • Optical or prismatic hand-bearing compass, most often used by surveyors, but also by cave explorers, foresters, and geologists. These compasses generally use a liquid-damped capsule[27]Magne]]and magnetized floating compass dial with an integral optical sight, often fitted with built-in photoluminescent or battery-powered illumination.[28] to an object, often to fractions of a degree. Most of these compasses are designed for heavy-duty use, with high-quality needles and jeweled bearings, and many are fitted for tripod mounting for additional accuracy.[17]
  • Trough compasses, mounted in a rectangular box whose length was often several times its width, date back several centuries.

The magnetic compass is very reliable at moderate latitudes, but in geographic regions near the Earth's magnetic poles it becomes unusable.

Magnetic compasses are influenced by any fields other than Earth's.

A compass is also subject to errors when the compass is accelerated or decelerated in an airplane or automobile.

Another error of the mechanical compass is turning error.

Construction of a magnetic compass

A magnetic rod is required when constructing a compass.

If a needle is rubbed on a lodestone or other magnet, the needle becomes magnetized. When it is inserted in a cork or piece of wood, and placed in a bowl of water it becomes a compass. Such devices were universally used as compass until the invention of the box-like compass with a 'dry' pivoting needle sometime around 1300.

Originally, many compasses were marked only as to the direction of magnetic north, or to the four cardinal points (north, south, east, west).

In the modern era, the 360-degree system took hold.

Most military forces have adopted the French "millieme" system. This is an approximation of a milli-radian (6283 per circle), in which the compass dial is spaced into 6400 units or "mils" for additional precision when measuring angles, laying artillery, etc. The value to the military is that one angular mil subtends approximately one metre at a distance of one kilometer. Imperial Russia used a system derived by dividing the circumference of a circle into chords of the same length as the radius. Each of these was divided into 100 spaces, giving a circle of 600. The Soviet Union divided these into tenths to give a circle of 6000 units, usually translated as "mils". This system was adopted by the former Warsaw Pact countries (e.g. Soviet Union, East Germany), often counterclockwise (see picture of wrist compass). This is still in use in Russia.

Because the Earth's magnetic field's inclination and intensity vary at different latitudes, compasses are often balanced during manufacture so that the dial or needle will be level, eliminating needle drag which can give inaccurate readings.

Some compasses feature a special needle balancing system that will accurately indicate magnetic north regardless of the particular magnetic zone.

Like any magnetic device, compasses are affected by nearby ferrous materials, as well as by strong local electromagnetic forces.

A similar process is used to calibrate the compass in light general aviation aircraft, with the compass deviation card often mounted permanently just above or below the magnetic compass on the instrument panel.

Using a magnetic compass

A magnetic compass points to magnetic north pole, which is approximately 1,000 miles from the true geographic North Pole.

Mariners are concerned about very accurate measurements; however, casual users need not be concerned with differences between magnetic and true North.

Compass navigation in conjunction with a map (terrain association) requires a different method. To take a map bearing or true bearing (a bearing taken in reference to true, not magnetic north) to a destination with a protractor compass, the edge of the compass is placed on the map so that it connects the current location with the desired destination (some sources recommend physically drawing a line). The orienting lines in the base of the compass dial are then rotated to align with actual or true north by aligning them with a marked line of longitude (or the vertical margin of the map), ignoring the compass needle entirely.[17]The%20Ultimate%20Deser]] The resulting or map bearing may then be read at the degree indicator or direction-of-travel (DOT) line, which may be followed as an azimuth the destination. If a magnetic north bearing or compass bearing is desired, the compass must be adjusted by the amount of magnetic declination before using the bearing so that both map and compass are in agreement.[17] In the given example, the large mountain in the second photo was selected as the target destination on the map. Some compasses allow the scale to be adjusted to compensate for the local magnetic declination; if adjusted correctly, the compass will give the true bearing instead of the magnetic bearing.

The modern hand-held protractor compass always has an additional direction-of-travel (DOT) arrow or indicator inscribed on the baseplate. To check one's progress along a course or azimuth, or to ensure that the object in view is indeed the destination, a new compass reading may be taken to the target if visible (here, the large mountain). After pointing the DOT arrow on the baseplate at the target, the compass is oriented so that the needle is superimposed over the orienting arrow in the capsule. The resulting bearing indicated is the magnetic bearing to the target. Again, if one is using "true" or map bearings, and the compass does not have preset, pre-adjusted declination, one must additionally add or subtract magnetic declination to convert the magnetic bearing into a true bearing. The exact value of the magnetic declination is place-dependent and varies over time, though declination is frequently given on the map itself or obtainable on-line from various sites. If the hiker has been following the correct path, the compass' corrected (true) indicated bearing should closely correspond to the true bearing previously obtained from the map.

A compass should be laid down on a level surface so that the needle only rests or hangs on the bearing fused to the compass casing – if used at a tilt, the needle might touch the casing on the compass and not move freely, hence not pointing to the magnetic north accurately, giving a faulty reading.

See also

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