True North

Why everyone should own a compass

My first compass came courtesy of Santa, sometime in the late 1980’s. It was a flat plastic kind with ruler marks on the base, a liquid filled bezel and a strange rotating hand with a mind of it’s own. It also had a magnifying lens built in and I remember being more enthused by inspecting the texture of the carpet in close up and spinning the dial than by anything the needle did. I now know this was a standard orienteering compass, designed to be quickly laid on a map, adjusted for magnetic North and then a course decided.

The compass was invented during the Han dynasty (200 BC - 100 AD) as a way of making sure houses and temples were arranged with a pleasing feng shui, or for searching for gem stones. It wasn’t for another thousand years or so before anyone thought to use one for navigation.

It then arrived in Europe where it fuelled the great exploratory age that has shaped the social world of today. Since then we have invented sighting compasses and gimbaled ones for boats and aeroplanes. It wasn’t until satellite positioning was popularised in the 1990’s that the compass finally had a true successor, although the trusty magnetic compass will always have a place as an infallible backup for when batteries go flat.

To use a compass and map properly takes a little knowledge. You have to know that magnetic north (where the compass points to) is not where the geographical north pole actually is (where north is shown on a map). But once you know this and how to adjust for it, a compass can be used with a simple paper map or chart to navigate in the outdoors.

My current compass, which could be the exact same model as my first, sits in my kitchen drawer alongside a torch, an assortment of half empty pens, paper clips and a brass picture hooks. It’s there for emergencies, handy but not on display. I often take it into the outdoors although more for if we get lost than as a day-to-day aid.

Occasionally I pull it out of the drawer and run my finger over the ridges on the dial and slide the magnifying lens over the skin on my palm. Then I’ll hold it flat and wait for the little needle to settle, reassuringly in the same direction as last time.