A simple dry magnetic pocket compass

A compass is a navigational instrument for determining direction relative to the Earth's magnetic poles. It consists of a magnetized pointer (usually marked on the North end) free to align itself with Earth's magnetic field. The compass greatly improved the safety and efficiency of travel, especially ocean travel. A compass can be used to calculate heading, used with a sextant to calculate latitude, and with a marine chronometer to calculate longitude. It thus provides a much improved navigational capability that has only been recently supplanted by modern devices such as the Global Positioning System (GPS). A compass is any magnetically sensitive device capable of indicating the direction of the magnetic north of a planet's magnetosphere. The face of the compass generally highlights the cardinal points of north, south, east and west. Often, compasses are built as a stand alone sealed instrument with a magnetized bar or needle turning freely upon a pivot, or moving in a fluid, thus able to point in a northerly and southerly direction. The compass was invented in ancient China around 247 B.C., and was used for navigation by the 11th century. The dry compass was invented in medieval Europe around 1300.[1] This was supplanted in the early 20th century by the liquid-filled magnetic compass.[2]

Other, more accurate, devices have been invented for determining north that do not depend on the Earth's magnetic field for operation (known in such cases as true north, as opposed to magnetic north). A gyrocompass or astrocompass can be used to find true north, while being unaffected by stray magnetic fields, nearby electrical power circuits or nearby masses of ferrous metals. A recent development is the electronic compass, or fibre optic gyrocompass, which detects the magnetic directions without potentially fallible moving parts. This device frequently appears as an optional subsystem built into GPS receivers. However, magnetic compasses remain popular, especially in remote areas, as they are cheap, durable, and require no electrical power supply.[3]


Modern compasses

A walker's liquid-filled compass, with a lanyard for the neck

Modern compasses usually use a magnetized needle or dial inside a capsule completely filled with fluid (oil, kerosene, or alcohol is common). While older designs commonly incorporated a flexible diaphragm or airspace inside the capsule to allow for volume changes caused by temperature or altitude, modern liquid compasses utilize smaller housings and/or flexible materials for the capsule itself to accomplish the same result. The fluid dampens the movement of the needle and causes the needle to stabilize quickly rather than oscillate back and forth around magnetic north. North on the needle or dial, as well as other key points are often marked with phosphorescent, photoluminescent, or self-luminous materials[4] to enable the compass to be read at night or in poor light.

Many modern recreational and military compasses integrate a protractor with the compass, using a separate magnetized needle. In this design the rotating capsule containing the needle has a transparent base containing map orienting lines as well as an orienting 'box' or outline for the needle.[5] The capsule is then mounted in a transparent baseplate containing a direction-of-travel (DOT) indicator for use in taking bearings directly from a map.[5]

Liquid filled lensatic compass
Cammenga air filled lensatic compass

Other features found on some modern 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, "global" needles for use in differing hemispheres, adjustable declination for obtaining instant true bearings without resort to arithmetic, and devices such as inclinometers for measuring gradients.[5]

The military forces of a few nations, notably the United States Army, continue to utilize lensatic field compasses with magnetized compass dials or cards instead of needles. A lensatic-card compass permits reading the bearing off the compass card with only a slight downward glance from the sights (see photo), but may require a separate protractor for use with a map.[5][6] The official U.S. military lensatic compass does not use fluid to damp needle swing, but rather electromagnetic induction to damp the needle. A "deep-well" design is used to allow the compass to be used globally with little or no effect in accuracy caused by a tilting compass dial. 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 humid environments.[7]

Some military compasses, like the U.S. SY-183 ('SandY-183') military lensatic compass, the Silva 4b Militaire, and the Suunto M-5N(T) contain the radioactive material tritium (3H) and a combination of phosphors.[8] The U.S. military compass, made by Stocker & Yale (later, Cammenga) contained 120mCi (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.[9]

Mariner's compasses can have two or more magnetic needles permanently attached to a compass card. These move freely on a pivot. A lubber line, which can be a marking on the compass bowl or a small fixed needle indicates the ship's heading on the compass card. Traditionally the card is divided into thirty-two points (known as rhumbs), although modern compasses are marked in degrees rather than cardinal points. The glass-covered box (or bowl) contains a suspended gimbal within a binnacle. This preserves the horizontal position.

How the compass works

The compass functions as an indicator to "magnetic north" because the magnetic bar at the heart of the compass aligns itself to one of the lines of the Earth's magnetic field. Depending on where the compass is situated on the surface of the Earth the variance between geographic north or "true north" will increase the farther one is from the prime meridian of the Earth's magnetic field. It should be noted that the geographic North Pole and the magnetic north pole are not coincident on the surface of the Earth. The Magnetic North Pole drifts in a circle with a radius of approximately 1600 km south of geographic north. It takes roughly 960 years for the magnetic pole to complete one cycle of drift across the Arctic Ocean. It is thought that the cause of this magnetic pole drift is the circulation of the magma inside the Earth.

Limitations of the compass

The compass is very stable in areas close to the equator, which is far from "magnetic north". As the compass is moved closer and closer to one of the magnetic poles of the Earth, the compass becomes more sensitive to crossing its magnetic field lines. At some point close to the magnetic pole the compass will not indicate any particular direction but will begin to drift. Also, the needle starts to point up or down when getting closer to the poles, because of the so-called magnetic inclination. Cheap compasses with bad bearings may get stuck because of this and therefore indicate a wrong direction.

A compass is also subject to errors when the compass is accelerated or decelerated in an airplane or automobile. Depending on which of the Earth's hemispheres the compass is located and if the force is acceleration or deceleration the compass will increase the indicated heading or decrease the indicated heading.

Another error of the compass is turning error. When one turns from a heading of east or west the compass will lag behind the turn or lead ahead of the turn.

Using a compass

Turning the compass scale on the map (D - the local magnetic declination)
When the needle is aligned with and superimposed over the outlined orienting arrow on the bottom of the capsule, the degree figure on the compass ring at the direction-of-travel (DOT) indicator gives the magnetic bearing to the target (mountain).

A magnetic compass points to magnetic north pole, which is approximately 1,000 miles from the true geographic North Pole. A magnetic compass's user can determine true North by finding the magnetic north and then correcting for variation and deviation. Variation is defined as the angle between the direction of true (geographic) north and the direction of the meridian between the magnetic poles. Variation values for most of the oceans had been calculated and published by 1914.[10] Deviation refers to the response of the compass to local magnetic fields caused by the presence of iron and electric currents; one can partly compensate for these by careful location of the compass and the placement of compensating magnets under the compass itself. Mariners have long known that these measures do not completely cancel deviation; hence, they performed an additional step by measuring the compass bearing of a landmark with a known magnetic bearing. They then pointed their ship to the next compass point and measured again, graphing their results. In this way, correction tables could be created, which would be consulted when compasses were used when traveling in those locations.

Mariners are concerned about very accurate measurements; however, casual users need not be concerned with differences between magnetic and true North. Except in areas of extreme magnetic declination variance (20 degrees or more), this is enough to protect from walking in a substantially different direction than expected over short distances, provided the terrain is fairly flat and visibility is not impaired. By carefully recording distances (time or paces) and magnetic bearings traveled, one can plot a course and return to one's starting point using the compass alone.[5]

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.[5] The resulting true bearing or map bearing may then be read at the degree indicator or direction-of-travel (DOT) line, which may be followed as an azimuth (course) to 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.[5] 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.


  1. ^ a b Lane, p. 615
  2. ^ a b c W. H. Creak: "The History of the Liquid Compass", The Geographical Journal, Vol. 56, No. 3 (1920), pp. 238-239
  3. ^ Seidman, David, and Cleveland, Paul, The Essential Wilderness Navigator, Ragged Mountain Press (2001), ISBN 0071361103, p. 147: Since the magnetic compass is simple, durable, and requires no separate electrical power supply, it remains popular as a primary or secondary navigational aid, especially in remote areas or where power is unavailable.
  4. ^ Nemoto & Co. Ltd., Article: In addition to ordinary phosphorescent luminous paint (zinc sulfide), brighter photoluminescent coatings of strontium aluminate or isotopes of self-luminous tritium are now being used on modern compasses.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Johnson, G. Mark (2003-03-26). The Ultimate Desert Handbook. McGraw-Hill Professional. p. 110. ISBN 0-07-139303-X.
  6. ^ U.S. Army, Map Reading and Land Navigation, FM 21-26, Headquarters, Dept. of the Army, Washington, D.C. (7 May 1993), ch. 11, pp. 1-3: Any 'floating card' type compass with a straightedge or centerline axis can be used to read a map bearing by orienting the map to magnetic north using a drawn magnetic azimuth, but the process is far simpler with a protractor compass.
  7. ^ Kearny, Cresson H., Jungle Snafus...And Remedies, Oregon Institute Press (1996), ISBN 1884067107, pp. 164-170: In 1989, one U.S. Army jungle infantry instructor reported that about 20% of the issue lensatic compasses in his company used in a single jungle exercise in Panama were ruined within three weeks by rain and humidity.
  8. ^ Ministry of Defence, Manual of Map Reading and Land Navigation, HMSO Army Code 70947 (1988), ISBN 0117726117, 9780117726116, ch. 8, sec. 26, pp. 6-7; ch. 12, sec. 39, p. 4
  9. ^ "Military Compass". Retrieved 2009-06-30.
  10. ^ Wright, Monte, Most Probable Position, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, 1972, p.7

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