Used in Ancient China as early as the Qin dynasty (221 BCE – 207 BCE) or before, Chinese compasses were invented for more than just helping people find their way when traveling. Compasses were originally developed for aligning buildings with directions (north, south, east or west), and as a tool used in fortune telling.
Original Chinese Compass Design
The Ancient Chinese compass was made from iron oxide, a mineral ore. Iron oxide is also known as lodestone and magneta.
The most popular style of the first Chinese compass used a lodestone (which automatically points to the south) and a bronze plate. The lodestone was carved into the shape of a spoon. The spoon was placed on a flat plate of bronze. As the bronze plate was moved, the lodestone spun around and came to a stop in a north-to-south orientation with the handle pointing to the south. The “magnetized” lodestone aligned itself with the Earth’s magnetic field. This style of compass was called a “south-pointer”. The bronze plate was also marked with constellations, cardinal points, and other symbols important to the Ancient Chinese.
Another style of compass was made by placing an iron needle that had been rubbed with a lodestone on a piece of wood and floating the wood in a bowl of water. The water allowed the wood to move or spin around until the iron oxide needle was pointing south.
How the Chinese Compasses was used
The original use of Ancient Chinese compasses was for maintaining harmony and prosperity with one’s environment and for telling the future.
If your home or business was placed in the right direction, then you would have a good life including good health and much wealth. Today, we know this practice as feng shui.
If you wanted to know the best time and location to get married or to have a burial, then the fortune tellers would use a fortune telling board that included a lodestone to give you the information you needed.
Additionally, the Ancient Chinese used the compass for navigation – to find their way home when traveling. The use of the compass for travel also gave the advantage of being able to travel no matter the weather condition. If clouds or fog masked the sun or the stars, you could still travel because the compass would point you in the right direction.
Comparing Ancient Chinese Compasses and Modern Compasses
There is one major difference between the Ancient Chinese compass and the compasses of today – pointing to the south (Ancient Chinese) versus pointing to the north (today’s compasses).
It doesn’t matter whether a lodestone pointing to the south is better or worse than a magnet pointing to the north. As long as the person using the compass knows what type of material the compass is made from, they can travel in whatever direction is best for them knowing that their compass will point them in the right direction – north or south, east or west.
Chinese Compass Navigation
One of the first recordings of using a compass for navigation was during the Northern Song dynasty (960 CE – 1126 CE). These compasses were made by floating a magnetized needle in water. The needle could move freely in the water and point to the earth’s magnetic poles no matter the movement from the ship or boat.