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COMPASS: A Story of Exploration and Innovation

Alan Gurney, Author
Alan Gurney, Author . Norton $22.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-393-05073-8
Reviewed on: 05/03/2004
Release date: 06/01/2004
Compact Disc - 978-1-4159-1740-4
Paperback - 320 pages - 978-0-393-32713-7
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British writer, photographer and yacht designer Gurney (The Race to the White Continent ) sets his sights on the events leading to the invention Victor Hugo called "the soul of the ship." Centuries ago, a sailor's directional aids were winds and vision. Until the compass was developed in the 12th century, maps and charts could not be used with accuracy, but "the path from lodestone to global positioning systems has been a tortuous one... marked by wrecks and sailors' bones." Gurney begins with the Scilly Islands catastrophe of 1707, when "shoddy compasses" led to the death of 2,000 men in "the worst shipwreck disaster ever suffered by the Royal Navy." Early discoveries that lodestone could magnetize a needle were followed by a parade of devices and experiments. With the circumnavigation of the globe in 1522, "the whole world was magically transformed into an oyster for traders... explorers, and mariners: an oyster ready and waiting to be opened, not with a sword, but by a compass needle." In 1901, the magnetic compass was "unseated from its throne" by the gyrocompass, yet Gurney concludes by noting that despite 20th-century technological upgrades, the magnetic compass remains "a fail-safe measure." An appendix itemizes deviations of the compass needle from the magnetic north; the 20 illustrations include maps, charts, compass cards and woodcuts. Bibliographic notes filling 24 pages indicate Gurney's exhaustive research for this engaging foray into vistas and voyages of the past. (June 28)

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