6 Creative Ways People Used to Navigate the Oceans


It’s pretty hard to get lost these days, no matter where you are in the world. All you have to do is fire up your favorite navigation app and you’re good. Even ships in the middle of the ocean have GPS. But back before all that technology existed, getting lost was a real danger, especially at sea. To the untrained eye, the ocean looks a whole lot like wet and nothing else. So people around the world independently came up with techniques for squeezing all of the information they could out of what they could see at sea. Lots of them hit on the usefulness of the stars to tell direction especially the Sun and Polaris the North Star and they came up with nifty devices to pinpoint their location based on the stars as well as how to find land when it was out of sight so here are six of the earliest ways people from around the globe mastered the art of navigation tailored to the different challenges they had to deal with it at sea. In Marshall Islands in Micronesia in the Pacific Ocean were first settled around 2,000 years ago. They belong to a larger legacy of navigators who conquered the Pacific with canoes and brainpower. These navigators could find their way between tiny islands throughout the Pacific and there’s some evidence that they made contact with South America long before Europeans did. They know a ton about stars so even though they didn’t have magnetic compasses they came up with what was basically an entire compass made up of knowledge of the night sky. The Marshalees is in particular also had an unusual device known today as the stick charts. Stick charts depict the ocean around one or a few islands in the 1,100 kilometer stretch that is the Marshall islands. But they weren’t exactly maps. Instead they showed what you could feel the ocean doing from a boat. The Marshallees is bound together straight and curved sticks or fibers to represent swells and currents, the behaviors and patterns of the ocean. Small shells marked where islands were. The charts were actually mainly used as teaching tools. Navigators would memorize all the information in them before ever setting out on a voyage. Over the past few centuries much of their traditional knowledge has been lost but there are people working to revive the art of navigating based on the movements of the ocean. The Kamal is a simple-looking device. It’s basically a rectangular bit of wood and a knotted string. But that’s all the sailors needed to figure out their latitude. Compared to European navigators, Arab explorers spent more time out of sight of land on their voyages. They’d venture farther out because the water is close to the shore of the South Africa were too dangerous to hug the coast. So they needed a good way to keep track of their location which was where the kamal came in. It was probably developed some time after nine hundred C.E. Once sailors got to the right latitude all they had to do was go east or west until they bumped into the port that they were trying to reach. To use a kamal, all you have to do is hold the string in your teeth and then hold out the wooden rectangle until the lines matchup with Polaris on top and the horizon on the bottom. The angle between Polaris and the horizon depends on your latitude. It’s directly overhead at the North Pole and on the horizon at the equator. So you end up holding the rectangle closer to your face the farther north you are and by measuring the distance from the rectangle to your face you can figure out your latitude. That’s what the string is for, it let’s you measure the distance from the rectangle to your face. You can record the latitude of a port by making a Kamal while you’re there. You just make a string with the right length and put the rectangle between Polaris and the horizon. Then define that latitude again you sail north or south until the distance from the rectangle to your face matches up with the length of the string A Kamal like that only works for one port, so sailors might have had collections of them for getting around. Some more complicated Kamals were made to be more general measuring devices. Their strings had multiple knots, so you could compare the length of the string with a list of links that correspond to different ports. Four of the marks could be at regular intervals, just like centimeter marks on a ruler with the distance between the knots’ corresponding to a known change in latitude. The Kamal was a simple but accurate tool so much so that it was still in use in the 20th century. The cross staff was another latitude measuring device. The earliest European version is attributed to Levi Ben Gerson, a 14th century Jewish mathematician. Though it was probably being used for surveying and astronomy long before that. By 1514, it was being adapted by European sailors so they could use it at sea. The cross staff works just like the Kamal, and was probably based on it, even though it looks different. It’s a long staff marked with degree measurements with a perpendicular sliding crossbar. To use it you hold the staff up to your cheek and slide the crossbar until the horizon lines up with the bottom edge and either Polaris or the sun at noon lines up with the top edge. Then you have your latitude just like with a Kamal. As you can probably imagine looking directly into the Sun, to use across staff turned out to be a bit of an issue. A fancier version was eventually developed called the back staff that let people use shadows instead of looking straight at the sun. A cross step is most accurate between about 20 and 60 degrees latitude. At higher latitudes, the angles got too big for the human eye to see both sides of the crossbar at the same time. But most of the time, it was a super convenient way for sailors to keep track of their latitude. The astrolabe is kinda like a fancier version of the Kamal, or cross staff. It was probably invented by the Greek scholar Hipparchus, in the second century B.C., when it was used for astronomy. It’s use as a navigational tool wasn’t recorded until much later in 1481 C.E., by Portuguese sailors traveling down the coast of Africa, it was probably being used for navigation before then though. The version used for navigation was called the Mariners astrolabe and it was another tool for measuring latitude based on the sun and stars. But its advantage over the Kamal and cross staff was that you didn’t have to be able to see the horizon to use it. That meant that it worked in fog, or when it was too dark to see the horizon. A Mariners astrolabe is a heavy brass disc with a rotating arm in the middle. To use it, a sailor would dangle the disk from a ring at the top so that it would hang perpendicular to the ocean. Then, they would turn the arm until it lines up with the sun or with Polaris. The disk was marked with angle measurements around the edge so whatever angle the arm pointed to was the altitude of the star. And their navigators could use math to figure out their latitude. It might sound easy and accurate but on a rocking ship’s deck, it was actually the opposite of those things. The dangling instrument would swing back and forth too much to get a good reading, massive errors were common and if you really wanted an accurate measurement, you had to go ashore. Which, you’re lost, not easy. it would have also been hard to use a Kamal or cross step on a rocking ship, but it was probably at least a little easier to get a measurement. Add to that the fact that the other two were easier to make, and you can see why some sellers preferred them. China was a great naval power in the 15th century, and its greatest navigator was a two meter tall burly Muslim by the name of Zheng He. On the orders of Ming Dynasty Emperor’s Zhu Di, he sailed the places like the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf and the eastern coast of Africa in seven voyages, with dozens of huge treasure filled ships in tow. And he did it using one of China’s greatest inventions: the magnetic compass. The compass had been invented long before Zheung Di’s time, but his expeditions were among the earliest well-known voyages to use the compass for navigation. Originally, compasses were used for divination. During the Qin Dynasty in more than 200 years BCE, someone noticed that a naturally occurring magnet call a lodestone will align itself in a particular direction when you laid it down on a fortune-telling board. Eventually, people realized that a lodestone was not pointing to your future or your fate, it was aligning with North and South, and we now know that in general, magnetic materials will line themselves up with Earth’s magnetic field. Early lodestone compasses were shaped like spoons. But then people figured out that you could magnetize a needle using a lodestone. They started making compasses with iron needles, which are more accurate because they’re pointy. They also realized that if you attached the needle to a piece of wood, or cork and let it float in water, it would spin without friction resisting as much. By his first voyage in 1405, the compass had been perfected enough to lead Zheung Di’s fleet across the ocean. The Sunstone was another material with a special property that helps with navigation. About a thousand years ago, ancient Viking texts recorded the use of a magical crystal that could sense the direction of the Sun, even when it was hidden by clouds or below the horizon. For a long time, historians wrote this off as a myth. Sure, the Vikings had magic rocks, they also had trolls and thunder Gods that looks like Chris Hemsworth. But recent experiments have shown that you can use a rock that would have been available to the Vikings to work out the direction of the sun accurately enough to navigate. it’s called Icelandic spars with a mineral called calcite and some historians think it was the real Sunstone. Calcite has a property called birefringence. The mineral has two different indices of refraction, which means that light passing through it gets split into both beams of reflected light form an image so anything you look at through a birefringence crystal becomes double do this with sunlight and one of the images will be brighter than the other that’s because of the way sunlight if polarized that is the way that the waves lineup in different directions when it passes through the atmosphere. If you rotate the crystal so it’s pointing at the sun, the light coming from the sun will line up so that the two images are equally bright. So if you know how sunstones work, it’s pretty easy to use one to pinpoint the location of the sun based on the way that light waves lineup, even when you can’t actually see the sun. That said, we don’t know for sure that Vikings used calcite for their Sunstones. Calcite crystals have never been recovered from Viking sites, except for a few small fragments. Vikings tended to burn their dead and calcite is fragile so even if the Vikings used calcite Sun stones we may never find one. But researchers did discover a piece of Icelandic spar from an English ship wreck daring dating back to the late fifteen hundreds, which could have been a holdover from the Vikings. So the mythical Sunstone might be real after all and just another one of the creative ways people came up with it to help them navigate the oceans. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow, which is brought to you by our Patrons on Patreon. if you want to help support this show, just go to Patreon.com/SciShow, and I want to say thank you to whoever ended up doing animations for this show because I’m sure it was a lot of work. Right at this moment the episode, put your name right here and take credit. Good job! have all sorts of bizarre adaptations to get stuff done. Whether that’s finding enough heat, moving a mate, or raising am offspring. But some species have figured out shortcuts to make things a little easier.

Comments 100

  • we definitely need a floating city either anchored in a place or stabilized out of hurricane paths by gps controlled sailing. using solar and wind power.

  • thx for this awesomely ha bisky vid and the old ways probably worked better after all the GPS wants to send us into lakes sometimes so it cant know where we are at all times

  • Nothing about the sextant?

  • The older I get the more respect I have for my ancestors, and the less I accept woo-woo explanations for their achievements.

  • I was half-expecting a mention of John Harrison…

  • "After CE".. like.. tomorrow?

  • Aw, no mention of earlier 20th century methods like radio beacons.

  • AWWWWWWW Hank that was so nice!

  • I know I might get a bit of criticism for posting this here, but the crows nest on ships is further proof that early mariners believed the earth to be curved and spherical. if the world is flat, seeing across the great distances of an ocean free of obstructions would be easy to achieve. You wouldn't need a tall vantage point, just look through your telescope and voila! But the crow's nest was designed to see as far beyond the earth's curvature as possible.

  • and now there are flat earthers

  • honestly surprised by the amount of people mad and confused about SciShow using Current Era and Before Current Era instead of Before Christ and Anno Domini. It is simply a way to state time without stating a belief in Christ. and has existed since the 1700's. The terms in no way sound less educated, except in the fact that Anno Domini sounds like a different laguage (it's medeval latin) which only makes you feel smarter. I'm glad they used CE and BCE and hope more people do the same in the future.

  • Lattitude by Polaris, spot on. But, if you use the hight of the sun at noon, you have to correct for the date.

  • My ancestor were sailors. It makes me proud

  • 900 AD* No need for that unnecessary PC bs. Especially considering you say BC later in the video. Make your mind up, all that crap does is confuse people with unnecessary terms.

  • Had to watch this for science

  • Did anyone else feel like they really had to memorise how the kamal worked? Just in case of some future sinking incident you might end up in and you are relied upon to save everyone. But then you cant remember the order of events Hank described and instead, you sail around for hours with a bit of soggy string in your mouth shouting "GNO STHORRY I NEAN GO EASHT NO WESHT GNO NORTHS" and get caught in a whirlpool, and then everyone hates you and then you die?

  • Hah. silly people. Why didn't they use Google maps?

  • Calcite sunstones…..awesome

  • When I was crossing the Channel, the little blue dot said that I was in England. You are misinformed about the use of the Sunstone! Get one and find out what happens, forget the stupid theoretical "explanation "

    https://youtu.be/IjmVuLOnmYg

  • Fascinating, thank you!

  • I saw all the technology and I lost hope, but the last one was Iceland Spar! lol Pretty neat crystal.

  • Ugh the earth is flat.. You can see land from anywhere on sea with a telenacascope! (Irony implied.. Especially with the spelling error)

  • Good job Sam! Keep being awesome <3

  • Wow, the kamal is the epitome of smart simplicity. It's also crazy ingenious. It's these little inventions that make me look in awe at our ancestors–there were some quite smart cookies among them!

  • 2 liters tall? Liters are quantity not distance…..I'm sure you must mean meters, in which case 2 meters = 6 1/2 ft (approx.)!

  • Pronouncing Chinese names is not Hank’s strength.

  • It's a video about history. To me CE comes across like people who say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas". Either trying to be too politically correct or saying " hey everyone… I'm an atheist." Just annoying and distracting since it is glaring and not relevant to the discussion. If you want to use "new" measurements start with not using the silly imperial system which isn't even standard across countries… for example a US gallon is smaller than a Canadian one. But at least Canada switched to the world standard.

  • Eat that you flat earthers…lol If the earth was flat you could use a telescope to see japan from Hawaii……Just get up on the biggest hill and look west.. Test it out all you doubters of a globe.

  • If you know adjacent stars you can watch them rise, or set, comparing their order to a degree…on clear nights…

  • Man you guys are answering all of my crazy questions….love your science topics!

  • Do a video on circular breathing!

  • Sam – Good job of some of the tools used for ancient navigation. My 40 years of research has allowed me to reproduce many of these tools and show their accuracy. With GPS today and the internet most will ignore the ancient technology of navigation, however if they turn off electricity the future navigators will be lost. To add to your great film you may wish to include the lodestone compass, the lunar compass, the geode with calcite center, the stone circles, the sun dial, the 30 windows in the Viking ship design, the Coba dial and much more technology which was introduced to Western Europe by the navigators of Arabia. They also introduced magnetic declination (the difference between true north and magnetic north), They introduced cod liver oil to be used to stiffen the sails, and v stone formations to catch fish at low tide. Good luck with your great research and feel free to contact me for additional info if you desire.

  • Nice! I think the vikings way pf navigation is they best. No complicated wooden contraption of them ocean currents or holding up and aligning a stick with the horizon and some arbitrary star. Just take you crystal rotate it a bit and bam, there jeg have it.

  • Man this channel is the best

  • I would like that dude talk less and slow. Talk to the point and don't blah blah with out meaning, it cause irritation to listen. Too much noise words at the high speed .

  • I think Vikings navigated by ravens

  • good video

  • water isn't wet

  • icelandic spar would most likely be found in the ocean i would think

  • I knew calcite was birefringent, but I would never in a million years have figured out that the strength of the two images had anything to do with polarization or sunlight 0_0

  • I'm not buying the Marshallese way of navigating. In order for them to realize they were in a current, they must have had a reference point like the stars. It would take too long to realize one was moving if the stars were their only reference and the moon is no better because it moves. Sorry fellers.

  • Why not talk about the sextant???

  • HOW HAS NO ONE MADE A JOKE ABOUT USING A CROSS STAFF ON ROCKING SHIP AND PIRATES WITH EYE PATCHES OMG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Great job Sam!

  • what about sextant??????? i feel like giving a thumb down 🙁 mnnneee, not really.

  • good to know im still in use

  • Great episode! Would love to see a similar one about how different cultures made different kinds of maps (Similar to the stick chart you showed)

  • Why hasn't Complexly got their own graphics team?

  • “To some people, the ocean looks wet and nothing else”
    Are you saying waters wet? 🤔
    (Lol jk)

  • CE = what?

  • These all help with latitude. How about an episode on the struggle to figure out longitude. A great book, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, is a great read for anyone interested.

  • Interesting!

  • Thats cool. The kamal i see the navigator nami uses an unusual navigator compass which is upgraded. The first compass gets you to the next island and no where else. The next compass nami has allows her 3 islands to sail to. Same as the kamals one port design and multiple knot design for multiple ports.

  • Thanks Sam, you did great.

  • Thanks for using CE this pointless change helped me learn nothing… great job 👍

  • pig piss on the moslime navigator he should have been eaten by a shark, islam is cancer of the world

  • Sunstone is proof that what used to be called magic is just science.

    To some, that means that there's no magic.

    To me, it means magic has always been real and we've just become smart enough to explain it.

    Think about it. Really think about it: if we stumbled across a real life 100 percent tangible fire-breathing dragon, would we call it magic or would we figure out how the fire worked and publish it in a book and make a Scishow video about it?

    Maybe the person who discovered it would be famous for like 5 minutes and make like half a billion dollars or something, but 6 months later you wouldn't know who they were if you bumped into them on the street.

    It'd be like "oh yeah, fire-breathing dragons are a thing" and the response would be like "yeah, it's pretty cool to finally know how that works. Ha ha. What do you want for lunch?" lmao

  • Those Marshallese islanders stick charts. Whoah. Yup. Impressive! (Plus so much more here too.)

  • The Bishop Museum in Oahu had an exhibit about Pacific Islander navigation when I went there in January.

  • they use log pose 😂

  • Good job Sam! <3

  • To use the stick charts the Marshall Islanders would get into the water in order to partially submerge their scrotum, one of the most sensitive parts of the body, to best feel the ocean currents. Hopefully QI got its facts straight on this one.

  • Burly Muslim? Zheng he was an eunuch who spent every part of his life except from his early childhood away from his native village living as servant for increasingly richer and more powerful Confucianist aristocrats.

  • How many times can you say “space mission issues” before you screw up?

  • super informative really like it

  • This show is better than watching regular TV.

  • The Portuguese were the greatest navigators the world has ever seen, and this is a fact. The found the sea routes from Europe to South America, South Africa, India and China, and connected the four major continents together for the first time, something this guy completely fails to acknowledge

  • great examples of scientists and historians catching up to advances made by practitioners.

  • Thank you for using bce, kinda thought you were a trendy twat

  • This must have took quite alot of time for people to figure out.

  • That moment when you get to number 4 of 6 and realize your only halfway through the video.

  • i wouldnt call a compass a "creative" way to navigate the seas, as its the most common way to do so. great video tho

  • Before radiation belts, James Van Allen was a WWII junior officer on a destroyer testing improved proximity fuses, junior enough (and not part of ships crew) so the location somewhere in the South Pacific was secret from him. He used a protractor and plumbob to measure the sun's elevation every minute for a half hour around local noon to determine maximum elevation angle and time. By fitting the measurements to a smooth curve, he was able to determine daily location to "about a mile". Ships location was secret but GMT was not.
    Source: U of Iowa General Astronomy class 1970, JVA digression from whatever the main topic of the lecture was.

  • Interesting

  • Everywhere in the world? You should go to Cuba.

  • I think I'm getting more stupid this days…….. GPS…… NOT HELPING?

  • You forgot the quadrant

  • Humans are fascinating. Hard to believe we figured all this stuff out over many centuries.

  • I thought iolite was the sunstone? Awesome video, the kamal was cool!

  • wrg, think any nmw

  • yeesh, your pronunciation of chinese names are criminal!🤨

  • HAHAHAHA… Pac islander and "brain power" dont belong in the same sentence… hahhahaha, omg.

  • AD, assswipe, not CE.

  • Amazing content, I've always wanted to know this stuff!

  • Tuga here. Came for a smol ego boost, was not disappointed.

  • "because… ofcourse they had magic stones" 😂 I'm so proud of the legacy of my ancestors 😂
    I once read an article that Danish historians think Vikings could tell where they were on sea based on the marine life as well as tasting the seafloor

  • The kamal makes me think of Alex from The Expanse–it's an appropriate surname for him since he's a pilot 🙂

  • I was a Navigator (Quartermaster) in the US Navy and we still train to shoot star/sun lines with sextants and use stars for navigation. One time, during deployment in 2010, we lost all power in the middle of the Indian Ocean for 3 days. During that time we calculated our position, speed, drift and heading using the stars and were accurate to within 10 yards of our actual position (we checked once the power came back up) so navigating by the stars still works as long as you have the right equipment and knowledge.

  • No wonder peoples past believed in magic and fairytales. A stone that can find the sun while its hidden?? Sounds magic to me. Honestly so much weird stuff happens every day that without advanced science and research we'd probably still believe in witchcraft and sorcery. Then again I'm a beliver of the phrase "if it works, it works" so idc what reason is behind something working for you.

  • Trăng hă, Zheng He.
    Calcite works quite well, by holding it vertically, not at the sun, especially in the twilight.. One needs to be in the shade.

  • That kamal is insanely simple!

  • I would become a viking if the god of thunder did looked like Chris Hemsworth

  • Also, if using astrolabe during the day, I'm sure the whole staring at the sun might make it difficult (maybe)

  • thanks patrons

  • People are so amazingly smart!

  • Wait—someone on YouTube claims that trolls aren’t real???

  • Interesting! Thanks.😊

  • I love learning old tech like those,, they really make you use your brain..

  • For Goerge

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