Reference Work Entry

Handbook of Geomathematics

pp 43-68

Navigation on Sea: Topics in the History of Geomathematics

  • Thomas SonarAffiliated withComputational Mathematics, Technische Universität Braunschweig


In this essay we review the development of the magnet as a means for navigational purposes. Around 1600, knowledge of the properties and behavior of magnetic needles began to grow in England mainly through the publication of William Gilbert’s influential book De Magnete. Inspired by the rapid advancement of knowledge on one side and of the English fleet on the other, scientists associated with Gresham College began thinking of using magnetic instruments to measure the degree of latitude without being dependent on a clear sky, a quiet sea, or complicated navigational tables. The construction and actual use of these magnetic instruments, called dip rings, is a tragic episode in the history of seafaring since the latitude does not depend on the magnetic field of the Earth but the construction of a table enabling seafarers to take the degree of latitude from is certainly a highlight in the history of geomathematics.