The picturesque Italian village of Amalfi claims to have an illustrious maritime tradition, although the harbor there barely holds the couple of boats that remain in the local fishing fleet. Even the tourists from the cruise ships plying the Mediterranean are bussed in because the ships can’t anchor there. In the town square, there is a statue of a hooded man looking down at a compass he is holding in his left hand. The plaque identifies him as Flavio Gioia, but it probably isn’t him. It also says that the compass was invented in Amalfi, but it probably wasn’t. Are you confused yet? I certainly was until I dug a little deeper into the history of the compass in
Amir D. Aczel’s excellent book The Riddle of the Compass – The Invention That Changed the World (Harcourt, Inc. 2001).
Aczel’s interest in the compass began as a child. His father captained a passenger ship in the Mediterranean Sea and the he spent much of his young life sailing with him. He spent a few months each year on land getting his formal education, but it was this floating school that ignited his passion for the art of navigation, By the age of ten, his father would let him pilot the ship from a wooden stool that allowed Amir to reach the wheel. He learned the pilot house jargon and the art of steering a ship, an act that in no way resembles steering an automobile down a road. The ship’s momentum, the wind, and tides all conspire to keep a ship from going where the pilot wants it to go, so there as much ‘feel’ to steering a large ship as there is ‘technique’. With this maritime history as his backdrop, Aczel skillfully unravels the mystery of exactly who invented the compass and how it became such a world changing instrument.
Most modern scholars agree that the origin of the compass lies farther east than Italy. Early documents suggest that the Chinese knew of the properties of a naturally magnetic material called lodestone back to antiquity. Around the time of their Iron Age circa 800 BC, the Chinese not only recognized lodestone’s ability to attract metal, but they also understood that it had a direction-seeking property. This doesn’t mean that the Chinese invented the compass, however. Relics indicated that they fashioned spoonlike pointers reflecting the shape of the Big Dipper that were employed more for divination than navigation. The emperor would always face south so the whole idea of direction was built into the fabric of Chinese society. Retired Royal Naval officer Gavin Menzie’s own research claims that navigation for the fabled Chinese treasure fleets was accomplished by using angular measurements of certain stars. In the northern hemisphere, they used the North Star and in the southern latitudes where Polaris wasn’t visible, the star Canopus and the Southern Cross constellation were used to navigate the oceans. They were able to circumnavigate the world before the Europeans ‘discovered’ the New World, but it was not a feat made possible by the use of the compass. Indeed, the Chinese greatest contribution to global navigation were the maps they would share with European royalty when the Chinese treasure fleets made contact with the western world. What better way to prove one’s superiority than to share the wealth of nautical knowledge they had accumulated in their vast Books of Knowledge. The Chinese don’t get their due in this regard as the political climate in China changed soon after this exchange of navigational information occurred. Soon after a tsunami destroyed Admiral Tseng He’s treasure fleet, China’s new regime closed their borders, burned the Books of Knowledge and turned their backs on the outside world.
There is an entire history of maritime navigation that predates the invention of the compass. The idea that early mariners simply stayed close to the shore has been discarded because sailing near shore is much more hazardous than being on the open sea. Finding shipwrecks hundreds of miles from any coastline tells us that ancient mariners were not anchored to the shoreline while travelling from place to place. The sounding line used to measure the depth of the sea and to occasionally return sediment samples from the seafloor were navigation staples long before the compass. The accumulated knowledge passed down in navigation books would provide clues of what the depths and sediment types told captains about their direction of travel. Coupled with a seasoned captain’s ability at dead reckoning, there wasn’t a lot of mystery involved in navigating to faraway places along already well traveled routes.
The Vikings use of carved lodestone objects or needles magnetized with lodestone gave them a distinct advantage when roaming the gloomy northern Atlantic. When they set off from Greenland to explore the areas to the west, they were assured they could always reverse course using their magical north facing stone. The discovery of these magical stones and the earliest uses of the Earth’s magnetic field to aid navigation can’t be attributed to one individual, yet the good people of Amalfi still credit Flavio Gioia as the inventor of the modern navigational compass.
Amalfi became a maritime juggernaut simply because if was located in a centralized area between the warring factions that were trying to control the Eastern and Western Mediterranean basin. By trading with both the Eastern and Western factions, Amalfi was able to become a rich commercial trading center because it was in the right place at the right time to excel in maritime navigation and trade. There is no disputing that the mariner’s compass and navigational codes were developed in Amalfi. The larger question of ‘who gets credit’ is a murkier subject. The maritime might of Amalfi, and thus the glorious place it should hold in the whole Mediterranean maritime history, was greatly reduced by a perfect storm of cataclysms. The first came about because Amalfi’s naval forces were too often on the losing side of battles. The second was a major earthquake and storm that destroyed most of the town and harbor on November 24, 1343. The final blow was the introduction of the Black Death by stowaway rats coming into port in 1348 (which greatly reduced Amalfi’s population as it did most of Europe’s). Amalfi’s golden age of of maritime history was over. What could not be so easily erased was the technological innovation that was produced in Amalfi between 1295 and 1302. This box (or bossolo) standardized the design of the box compass that used a magnetic element suspended in a box that also contained a wind rose divided into 360 degrees. Interestingly enough, the Italian word for compass is ‘bossolo’ and a collection of navigational charts is called a ‘compasso’, but we won’t even try to explain how the Italian ‘bussolo’ came to be know as a ‘compass’.
The confusion surrounding Flavio Gioia actually began with the noted Italian historian Flavio Biondo (born in 1385) who published a history of Italy (Italy Illustrated in Regions) in 1450. Perhaps the name Flavio was introduced from Biondo when he described the Amalfi region as follows: “But it is well-known that we give glory to the people of Amalfi because the use of the magnet in navigation, which relies on the magnet’s quality of orienting itself to the north, was invented in Amalfi.” The real questions about Flavio Gioia wouldn’t be raised until 1902 when the people of Amalfi decided to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the invention of the maritime compass. They commissioned the previously mentioned statue for the town square with a plaque bearing the name that everyone in Amalfi knew as the inventor of the bussola: Flavio Gioia. The only problem was, no one seemed to know anything about the man other than his name.
Padre Timoteo Bertelli of Florence wrote to the organizer’s of Amalfi’s celebration and pointed out that there is no historical record of anyone named Flavio Gioia having anything to do with the compass. His own research had lead him to a startling conclusion on how the “myth of Flavio Gioia” began. It was a simple matter of a missing comma in document prepared by Giambasttista Pio in 1511. Pio reportedly said, “According to tradition, the magnet used in navigation was invented in Amalfi by Flavio.” Bertelli opined that Pio’s statement takes on a different meaning if one inserts a coma in the original Latin text because it would then be interpreted as saying, “According to tradition, the magnet used in navigation was invented in Amalfi, as related to us by Flavio.” Flavio, in this case, being the historian Flavio Biondi and not Flavio Gioia.
The uproar Bertelli created in 1902 lead to complaints about his apparent misunderstanding of Latin grammar and his confusion over Biondo’s first name. Bertelli, however, pointed out that Biondo was famous enough to be referred to by his first name alone at the time Pio wrote about him. Because there are no written references to anyone named Flavio Gioia before or after the alleged date that the compass was created in Amalfi (1302), then the ‘Gioia’ name must have been introduced in error at a much later date. As proof, he offered the following quote from Scipione Mazzella from 1570: “In Amalfi, the year 1300 brought glory to the people. Discovered by Flavio Gioia, the magnetic compass with a chart for navigation is a necessary aid for pilots and navigators, It was an invention that was never known to the ancients.” Bertelli likens this later introduction and distortion of the name to that of a misheard phrase that is passed from person to person until it no longer resembles the original phrase. Add in other name variations that have been recorded over the centuries (Flavio, Giovanni, Francesco, Gioia, Goia, Gisi, Ioha, and so on) and it could very well be that the name of the true inventor is simply lost to history. “Gioia” in Italian means ‘joy’, so who knows how it became attached to the invention of the ‘bussola’.
A little closer to home, we have a compass inventor of our own. When William Austin Burt was first running survey lines in what is now Marquette County, he found the native iron deflected the needle of his magnetic compass to a degree that made it darn right useless. He solved the problem by inventing a ‘solar compass’ that could be used while surveying these iron rich hills. It is fitting that Burt’s invention is on display at the Michigan Iron Industry Museum just off US 41 between Negaunee and Marquette. I find this interesting because a magnetic compass does not actually point to ‘true north’ which would be the Earth’s north pole. If actually points at the Earth’s Geomagnetic North Pole which is located on Elf Rings Island in northern Canada. In areas where there is a decided difference between the ‘True North Pole’ and the ‘Geomagnetic North Pole’, this difference (called declination) must be added or subtracted to compass bearings to get accurate navigational directions. Magnetic compasses aboard large steel ships use a couple of large metal spheres mounted on either side of their navigational array to compensate for the deviation caused by the ship’s metal hull. I find it ironic (sorry) that the line of ‘zero declination’ (where a compass pointing to Geomagnetic North also points at True North) happens to run right across upper Michigan – smack dab through the Marquette Iron Range where using a magnetic compass is highly compromised by the native iron deposits.
Unlike the statue in Amalfi dedicated to Flavio Gioia, we have plenty of documentation about who William Austin Burt was and that he was indeed the person who invented the solar compass.
Top Piece Video: This is the version of Frampton’s band I saw perform this tune at NMU…Show me the Way, of course!