When you take home a paper chart from Seachest, you're not just buying a map, but a bona fide piece of history. Whether Admiralty or Imray, every marine chart is an updated version of a previous attempt to map our expansive oceans, with some of the precursors to these variations being several centuries old. But when did this practice begin, and what were it's major steps forward? Whilst we won't be able to fit every milestone into this blog, here's our summary of the History of Nautical Navigation:

Before the Age of Navigation

Even before the advent of maritime navigation and the refinement of scientific instruments, there are a fair few handful of examples showing early civilizations performing competent seafaring feats. Many of the stand out examples of nautics during the time of antiquity include:

  • The Minoans of Crete, a bronze age civilization from the Greek islands, used the locations of stars (notably the constellation Ursa Major) for overnight sea voyages to the island of Thera and to Egypt.
  • Greek poets, including Homer and Aratus, would often include references to constellations and sailors who used them in their works.
  • Pytheas, a Greek geographer and navigator, embarked on one of the world's earliest, long voyages in around 325 BC. His journey was from Greece through the strait of Gibralter, to Western Europe and the British Isles. He was also the first known explorer to describe the Midnight Sun, polar ice and how the moon controls the tides.
  • The early precursors to nautical charts were more akin to 'sailing directions'. They did however begin to rely upon stereographic and orthographic projections from around 2BC.
  • The 'Sounding Weight' was an early tool of depth sounding that was bell shaped and allowed the Phoenicians, and later the Carthaginians, to measure how deep the waters were and estimate their distance from land.
  • In and around the 4th Century BC, ships in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean took advantage of the fairly constant monsoon winds to judge their direction, and to make long one-way voyages at two separate times of the year.
  • Ptolemy, the 2nd century Alexandrian astronomer, plotted longitude and latitude lines on his maps, using information brought back by travellers and sailors. His maps were rediscovered in the 15th century, and were used right until the 18th.
The Time of Medieval and Islamic Ocean Geography

The Vikings had a number of primitive, yet worthwhile navigation techniques. In the 13th-14th century they used early compasses and shadowboards to work out how far north or south they were (i.e. latitude and longitude), relying on the Sun's shadow to find out the local time. They were also known for using Sunstones; a mineral that could locate the Sun even in complete overcast skies.

In the Arab empire, trade networks extending from the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea to the rest of the world relied upon the first magnetic compass for sailing, as well as the kamal - a celestial navigation device that provided the first known use of latitude sailing. This was joined with the quadrant (originally proposed by Ptolemy), which measured the altitude of objects and the distance between them. It was used up until the octant, and later the sextant, replaced them for navigation.

The compass was initially viewed with suspicion in the West, and it wasn't until the early 1300's that the true mariner's compass (using a pivoting needle in a dry box) was invented in Europe. The directions from these compasses, along with estimated distances observed by pilots at sea, lead to the use of Portolan nautical charts in Europe, which featured increasing levels of cartographic accuracy as western societies progressed through the 15th and 16th century.

Navigation in the Age of Discovery

Considered the bridge between the Middle Ages and Modern era, this point in history - starting in the early 15th century - is noted by the Portugeuese discoveries of the Atlantic archipelagos and Africa, and of course the discovery of America by Spain. The nautical tools used were a mix of ancient and newer technologies, such as compasses, the hourglass, sea astrolabes, terrestrial and celestial globes, dividers and the Jacob's staff.

In the 16th century, the Portugese cosmographer Pedro Nunes published his book 'Tratado da Spehera', or 'Treaty about the Spehere', which marked the first time navigation was approached using mathematical tools, allowing it to become its own scientific discipline. John Davis, one of the chief navigators under Elizabeth I, described great circle sailing in his pamphet The Seaman's Secrets, and produced the Davis Quadrant, which became one of the dominant instruments of it's age.

James Cook and the Modern Age

Until the 18th century, the Pacific Ocean was largely uncharted. James Cook, a British explorer, navigator, cartographer, and captain in the Royal Navy, was asked to set sail in 1768. Returning 13 years later, he'd been the first to travel to New Zealand, Australia and Tasmania. For his future voyages, Cook used some of the great recent advancements in navigation from Isaac Newton (the reflecting quadrant), John Harrison (the chronometer) as well as the newly published nautical almanacs.

The first sextant arrived in 1757, by John Bird, as a resuult of using the octant to measure with the lunar distance method. Following this period up until today, the major advancements in seafaring included radios and wireless telegraphs, the placing of lighthouses and buoys, radiobeams & radar systems, and the launching of artificial satellites.

With GPS navigation systems now a standard part of ocean navigation, we think it appropriate that every sailor know the basis of celestial navigation and its history, even if they're no longer practising it.

What is your favourite advancement in nautical tools and techniques? Let us know in the comments, or you can tell us on Facebook, through Twitter or via Google+.

Post By Graham