Talented popular-science writer Aczel (God’s Equation, 1999, etc.) enthusiastically delves into the story of the magnetic compass.
There is no mistaking the importance Aczel places on the magnetic compass, which he calls “the most important technological invention since the wheel.” For him, that importance lies largely in its role (during the 13th-century revolution in maritime trade) in making the transport of goods efficient and reliable. Like many major inventions, the compass was a synthesis of extant parts—a magnetized needle, a wind rose, a 360-degree field—and the author tracks down its genesis both in Asia and Europe. He suggests that it was in China, sometime prior to a.d. 1040, that the first compass (a magnetized iron fish suspended in water) was constructed. Soon thereafter, also in China, came a wooden turtle that pivoted in a post to the dictates of its lodestone tail. China may even have had a dry magnetic compass as early as the first century, but since the Jesuits burned many of the ancient Chinese texts, we may never know. In Europe, the boxed compass produced in the Italian seacoast town of Amalfi at the turn of the 14th century was the first on record. But Aczel’s story ranges way beyond these conjectures, seeking the historical contexts in which the compass took shape. He describes the origins of feng shui, elaborates on Etruscan divination methods, sketches the art of reading the wind, offers short histories of Tuscany and Venice and Marco Polo, and trails a rumor that a Chinese divination compass made its way to the cults of Samothrace. Nimble writer that he is, Aczel keeps these and other topics in constant, fluid motion, like a master juggler.
A compulsively readable investigation, as attracting as the magnetic north.