The Riddle of the Compass: The Invention that Changed the World

The Riddle of the Compass: The Invention that Changed the World

by Amir D. Aczel
     
 

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The story of the compass is shrouded in mystery and myth, yet most will agree it begins around the time of the birth of Christ in ancient China. A mysterious lodestone whose powers affected metal was known to the Chinese emperor. When this piece of metal was suspended in water, it always pointed north. This unexplainable occurrence led to the stone's use in feng

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Overview

The story of the compass is shrouded in mystery and myth, yet most will agree it begins around the time of the birth of Christ in ancient China. A mysterious lodestone whose powers affected metal was known to the Chinese emperor. When this piece of metal was suspended in water, it always pointed north. This unexplainable occurrence led to the stone's use in feng shui, the Chinese art of finding the right location. However, it was the Italians, more than a thousand years later, who discovered the ultimate destiny of the lodestone and unleashed its formidable powers. In Amalfi sometime in the twelfth century, the compass was born, crowning the Italians as the new rulers of the seas and heralding the onset of the modern world. Retracing the roots of the compass and sharing the fascinating story of navigation through the ages, The Riddle of the Compass is Aczel at his most entertaining and insightful.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
PRAISE FOR THE RIDDLE OF THE COMPASS

"An uncommonly good book about an invention that—there's just no getting around it—changed the world."—Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post
"A compulsively readable investigation, as attracting as the magnetic north."—Kirkus Reviews

Aczel imparts for the hidden, mystical harmonies of numbers, and for that sense of awe alone, his slender volume is well worth the effort.
New York Times
Aczel imparts for the hidden, mystical harmonies of numbers, and for that sense of awe alone, his slender volume is well worth the effort.
Library Journal
Despite its brevity, this book covers its topic completely. In this detailed history, Aczel (God's Equation) takes us back in time to Amalfi, Italy, where between 1295 and 1302 the compass as we know it was developed. Aczel points out, however, that the actual discovery of materials that followed magnetic lines, or at least consistently pointed in a specific direction (south), is attributed to the Chinese in 1040. The story of the compass is also the story of navigation, which the author admirably combines. Debunking the myth that sailors followed the coastlines of countries until they met their desired location, the author describes how they navigated the open seas using the sun, stars, wind, and even the migration of birds. While this book is not a page-turner, it is an accurate account of the important historical events that lead to the compass's development. Tellingly, Aczel grew up on a ship and was navigating straits in the Mediterranean long before he could drive a car. Recommended for public as well as academic libraries whose readers want to go beyond the account generally given in an encyclopedia. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 4/1/01.] James Olson, Northeastern Illinois Univ., Chicago Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Prior to the invention of the compass, a merchant or sailor who wished to cross a large body of water was forced to navigate by studying the winds and stars or by never sailing out of the sight of land. Long ocean voyages were impossible and even sailing the Mediterranean could be a lengthy and hazardous voyage. The compass changed all of this. Mariners could now strike out on an azimuth and have a reasonable chance of arriving at their destination. This led to the Age of Exploration and the expansion of the European kingdoms into economic empires. Yet as important as the compass is, its origins are shrouded in mystery. The small town of Amalfi, Italy, claims to be the birthplace of the inventor of the compass, but China has an even stronger case. Aczel examines the myths, legends, and facts behind the dispute and provides a logical, although not indisputable, conclusion on which nation can claim the compass as its own. He also provides a layman's overview of the development of navigation from the earliest days to the 15th century. Although the author is primarily known for his scientific books, Riddle of the Compass contains little or no jargon and a minimum of scientific terminology. A worthwhile and interesting addition.-Robert Burnham, R. E. Lee High School, Springfield, VA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Talented popular-science writer Aczel (God's Equation) 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. Acompulsively readable investigation, as attracting as the magnetic north.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780156007535
Publisher:
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
05/28/2002
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
208
Sales rank:
903,336
Product dimensions:
7.96(w) x 5.24(h) x 0.58(d)

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