Findings, music, and occasional reflections by Paul Woodward

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How European sailors learned celestial navigation

Margaret Schotte writes:

During the 16th to 18th centuries, Europeans embarked on thousands of long-distance sea voyages around the world. These expeditions in the name of trade and colonisation had irreversible, often deadly, impacts on peoples around the globe. Heedless of those consequences, Europeans focused primarily on devising new techniques to make their voyages safer and faster. They could no longer sail along the coasts, taking their directional cues from prominent landmarks (as had been common in the preceding centuries). Nor did they have sophisticated knowledge of waves and currents, as did their counterparts in the Pacific. They had no choice but to figure out new methods of navigating across the open water. Instead of memorising the shoreline, they looked to the heavens, calculating time and position from the sun and the stars.

Celestial navigation was certainly feasible, but it required real technical skills as well as fairly advanced mathematics. Sailors needed to calculate the angle of a star’s elevation using a cross-staff or quadrant. They needed to track the direction of their ship’s course relative to magnetic north. Trigonometry and logarithms offered the best way to make these essential measurements: for these, a sailor needed to be adept at using dense numerical tables. All of a sudden, a navigator’s main skill wasn’t his memory – it was his mathematical ability.

To help the average sailor with these technical computations, maritime administrators and entrepreneurs opened schools in capital cities and port towns across Europe. Some were less formal arrangements, where small groups of men gathered in the teacher’s home, paying for a series of classes over the course of a winter when they were on shore. [Continue reading…]

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