Navigation – From Celestial Navigation to GPS

The desire to develop a systematic approach to finding one’s way within the unknown is arguably one of the most transformative endeavors the human species has ever undertaken. If men had lacked the impulse to find their way in the unknown, we may have never turned our eyes upward to the stars to find answers. Whether they knew it or not, these early celestial path seekers were laying the foundation for all of modern mathematics and nearly all the sciences as well.

Early Navigation

Early records indicate that the first attempts to navigate the great unknown revolved primarily around finding trade routes in the Mediterranean Sea. Many of the techniques used by these first intrepid traders were exactly the kinds of intuitive tactics you would expect from an early civilization. Most trade routes followed a single simple rule: Don’t stray too far from dry land. More adventurous and skilled traders had a general understanding of regular wind patterns and sea currents that allowed, if the time of year was right, for quicker trips in one direction or another.

It was also during this time that early astronomers and navigators began observing the general movement of the Sun, Stars and Moon. References to celestial navigation appear in “The Odyssey” and “The Illiad”. The Greek explorer Pytheas of Massalia used these techniques to undertake one of the first examples of a long distance exploration. It is generally thought his voyage brought him straight out of Gibraltar, up to the British Isles, and possibly all the way to Norway (and back) using little more than primitive nautical charts, textual descriptions, and a few well known constellations.

[google-map-v3 width=”350″ height=”350″ zoom=”12″ maptype=”roadmap” mapalign=”center” directionhint=”false” language=”default” poweredby=”false” maptypecontrol=”true” pancontrol=”true” zoomcontrol=”true” scalecontrol=”true” streetviewcontrol=”true” scrollwheelcontrol=”false” draggable=”true” tiltfourtyfive=”false” addmarkermashupbubble=”false” addmarkermashupbubble=”false” addmarkerlist=”36.1430, 5.3530{}gondola-2.png{}Gibraltar|54.0000, 4.0000{}gondola-2.png{}British Isles|60.3800, 5.3400{}gondola-2.png{}Norway” bubbleautopan=”true” showbike=”false” showtraffic=”false” showpanoramio=”false”]

Medieval Navigation

Major breakthroughs in navigation were few and far between after the fall of the Greek and Carthaginian civilizations. It wasn’t until the rise of the Arabic and Chinese Empires that significant advances in navigation technology again took place. Both civilizations independently invented early versions of the Magnetic Compass. Arabic geographers also made use of primitive instruments known as a “kamal” for measuring latitude and altitude. Europe didn’t contribute much to global exploration techniques again until the first improved nautical charts appeared in Italy in the early 1300’s.

Age of Exploration

A wave of exploration in the 1500’s, lead by Portugal and her celebrity explorer Henry the Navigator, put Europe back on the navigational science map. The goal of these expansionary missions was to accumulate wealth and claim land. As the Portuguese fleets voyaged farther into uncharted territories, the need to establish more accurate navigation methods fueled the development of accurate tables of the sun’s declination. Portuguese explorers took the lead in the long distance oceanic navigation using improved charts and an extensive knowledge of trade winds and ocean currents.

The Portuguese were followed by the Spanish. Famous undertakings under the leadership of Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan were made possible by refinements to the compass, cross-staff, and rudimentary nautical charts. It is worth noting that no good method to determine time accurately yet existed. The hourglass was the preferred method of telling time for over 300 years from 1500’s until the British Royal Navy in the 1800’s.

Modern Navigation

For over 1,000 years progress in the world of navigational science had come in fits and starts. All that changed with the establishment of the British Empire. As the Brits sent ships around the world, the demand for better navigation exploded. The Crown began to offer prizes to people who could solve major navigation problems. Their primary goal was to establish a reliable method for pinpointing a ship’s longitude. John Hadley rose to the occasion and claimed the prize. Hadley invented a device called the “octant” around 1730. British ships now had the tool marine explorers have long been waiting for. Using Hadley’s Octant, sailors could for the first time measure longitude with a high degree of accuracy. Modern navigation was born. Gradual refinements to the Octant gave way to the “sextant“. Combined with a marine chronometer, British trading ships were now equipped with the tools they needed to dominate the Ocean for the next 100 years.

Ever since the universal system of latitude and longitude were in place, progress in navigation has increased exponentially. It took its next big leap forward with the installation of ship radios at the end of the 1800s. Radar was developed and installed in mass quantities on ships and airplanes during World War II. Just over a decade later, the Russians changed navigation forever with the successful launch of the satellite Sputnik in 1957. In the 50 years that followed, low earth orbit has become so inundated with satellites that some of NASA’s debris scientists refer to it as an “Orbiting Minefield”. Modern satellite networks allow anyone with a $100 smartphone to know their exact location anywhere on earth within .03 of a mile. Calculations that once required a special knowledge of math, astronomy, complex tools, geography and a significant amount of time are now instantly rendered as an intuitive blue dot that can be followed around on a digital map by just about anyone.

So the next time you’re GPS takes a moment to “find satellites”, be sure to take that extra second to appreciate the 5,000 years of mathematics, technological development, and exploration that has lead to the miracle that now fits in your pocket!

About Author


  • Joe in the Woods

    I navigated across Lake Michigan in a sailboat in the Dark without a GPS. I turned on my GPS when I decided to turn a little…Bamm!!! I was right on !!! It’s great to learn the old ways… if the GPS goes out, most people would be lost. I don’t get lost…

    As an old Cavalry Scout we had a saying…

    Know where you’ve been,

    Know where you are,

    And know where you’re going!


    Scouts are never lost,

    we’re just temporarily


    • Captainoutlaw

      I agree Joe… I was in the swamp, my watch strap had broke thus was inside my pack so No one knew what time it was but I was close (within the hour) using a compass and a stick as a makeshift sundial…