Collection: Unit 3: Core Languages


A compass, as we know it today, is an instrument used for orientation that shows direction relative to the geographic cardinal points. Alongside other artifacts and methods, we give it credit for some of the most defining disocveries of humanity, especially during Europe’s global expansion between the 15th and the 18th century.


The earliest compasses were most likely invented by the Chinese. It is disputed whether other cultures such as some Mesoamerican societies may have developed it first. All we know for sure, though, is that they were first mentioned in a book called Guanzi, published somewhere between 722 and 481 b.C. during the Han Dynsaty. A section of lodestone, which is naturally magnetic, carved into the shape of a spoon, was placed on a polished metal board, where it would start spinning around. To their surprise, it always stopped in the same angle, which would later be understood as and indicator of north and south. However, in Chinese culture compasses have always pointed south rather than north. This is because the soil and climate is better in the south, and consequently this direction was always considered the better place in which to live.

The board consisted of a circular center that represented heaven, an outter square representing Earth, and the spoon, symbol of the Big Dipper. Within this constellation, there are two stars that always point to the Polar Star, and as Confucious said, “he who governs virtuosly may be compared to the Polar Star, which keeps its place while all other stars rotate aorund him”. In a similar manner, Sinan was a symbol of royal wisdom. Legend has it that other officials tried to fraud the king with lies to disorientate him and steal the throne. However, the king relied on this compass to stay grounded and lead the country to the right direction. It is also know that all visitors to the emperor had to sit to his south, so that the stars could rotate around his head.

The Chinese were very much fascinated by this mysterious force of magnetism, to the point where it was mainly used for spiritual purposes rather than acknowledging its navigation properties. Amongst other applications, Sinan was responsible for the developing of feng shui. This ancient practice is defined as a complex system of laws that governs spacial arrangement in relation to the flow of energy, also known as Chi. Still nowadays, favourable or unfavourable effects of feng shui are taken into account when planning cities, designing buildings and arranging outdoor and indoor spaces.

The Compass School of feng shui was established around that time, and engined the luo-pan: a compass specifically designed for feng shui. Luo means reticulated and pan means dish. The compass per se is in the middle, surrounded by a number of circles containing important information related to geology and astronomy. The number of circles varies according to the complexity of the luo-pan, but some have up to thirty-six. These circles are known as Tseng, meaning stories or layers. The eighth circle, for instance, is a useful one, as it is a calendar telling you when and where you should erect a house, temple, or tomb. A feng shui practitioner would start by using the luo-pan to determine the facing and sitting positions of the building. Then, he or she would analyse the information in the different rings of the luo-pan to help decide what can be done to improve the feng shui of the structure. Small factories in China began to mass produce a variety of compass designs, turning the object into a good of domestic use and a symbol of Chinese culture.

Intersetingly enough, there is an aesthetic resemblance between the design of the luo-pan and the so-called compass rose. The Greeks and the Romans had vast notions of meteorology and astrology, as well as the Arabs, who depended on celestial navigation to sail the seas. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until 1375 when the windrose appeared as an ornate drawing in the maps of the Catalan Atlas. The use of the fleur-de-lis as north mark was introduced by Pedro Reinel, which quickly became customary in compass roses and is still often used today. Old compass roses also often used a Christian cross at Levante (East), indicating the direction of Jerusalem from the point of view of the Mediterranean sea.

One thing that I find interesting is the Latin root behind the word itself. Compass is derived from “corn”, meaning together,  and “passus”, meaning way or route. Magnetic compasses are very simple, easily built devices, but must be laid completely flat on a platform, require some time to adjust to a turned platform, and may suffer interference from local magnetic fields. 

Since the very beginning, this device has challenged not only the laws of physics and our knowledge of the world. But it has also opened a path into a deeper understanding of spirituality. The human mind is inherently curious, and mankind has lived off of that; of its constant seek for truth and meaning. Who started a fire for the first time? Why? How? Where would we be without it? Well, same questions can be formulated around the invention of the compass. But I believe that without it we would not be here today, or as I’ve heard lately, we wouldn’t have come back home.