Renaissance science – XXVII

Early on in this series I mentioned that a lot of the scientific developments that took place during the Renaissance were the result of practical developments entering the excessively theoretical world of the university disciplines. This was very much the case in the mathematical sciences, where the standard English expression for the Renaissance mathematicus is mathematical practitioner. In this practical world, areas that we would now regard as separate disciples were intertwined is a complex that the mathematical practitioners viewed as one discipline with various aspects, this involved astronomy, cartography, navigation, trigonometry, as well as instrument and globe making. I have already dealt with trigonometry, cartography and astronomy and will here turn my attention to navigation, which very much involved the other areas in that list.

The so-called Age of Discovery or Age of Exploration, that is when Europeans started crossing the oceans and discovering other lands and other cultures, coincides roughly with the Renaissance and this was, of course the main driving force behind the developments in navigation during this period. Before we look at those developments, I want to devote a couple of lines to the terms Age of Discovery and Age of Exploration. Both of them imply some sort of European superiority, “you didn’t exist until we discovered you” or “your lands were unknown until we explored them.” The populations of non-European countries and continents were not sitting around waiting for their lands and cultures to be discovered by the Europeans. In fact, that discovery very often turned out to be highly negative for the discovered. The explorers and discoverers were not the fearless, visionary heroes that we tend to get presented with in our schools, but ruthless, often brutal chancers, who were out to make a profit at whatever cost.  This being the case the more modern Contact Period, whilst blandly neutral, is preferred to describe this period of world history.

As far as can be determined, with the notable exception of the Vikings, sailing in the Atlantic was restricted to coastal sailing before the Late Middle Ages. Coastal sailing included things such as crossing the English Channel, which, archaeological evidence suggests, was done on a regular basis since at least the Neolithic if not even earlier. I’m not going to even try to deal with the discussions about how the Vikings possibly navigated. Of course, in other areas of the world, crossing large stretches of open water had become common place, whilst the European seamen still clung to their coast lines. Most notable are the island peoples of the Pacific, who were undertaking long journeys across the ocean already in the first millennium BCE. Arab and Chinese seamen were also sailing direct routes across the Indian Ocean, rather than hugging the coastline, during the medieval period. It should be noted that European exploited the navigation skills developed by these other cultures as they began to take up contact with the other part of the world. Vasco da Gamma (c. 1460–1524) used unidentified local navigators to guide his ships the first time he crossed the Indian Ocean from Africa to India. On his first voyage of exploration of the Pacific Ocean from 1768 to 1771, James Cook (1728–1779) used the services of the of the Polynesian navigator, Tupaia (c. 1725–1770), who even drew a chart, in cooperation with Cook, Joseph Banks, and several of Cooks officer, of his knowledge of the Pacific Ocean. 

Tupaia’s map, c. 1769 Source: Wikimedia Commons

There were two major developments in European navigation during the High Middle Ages, the use of the magnetic compass and the advent of the Portolan chart. The Chinese began to use the magnetic properties of loadstone, the mineral magnetite, for divination sometime in the second century BCE. Out of this they developed the compass needle over several centuries. It should be noted that for the Chinese, the compass points South and not North. The earliest Chinese mention of the use of a compass for navigation on land by the military is before 1044 CE and in maritime navigation in 1117 CE.

Diagram of a Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) mariner’s compass Source: Wikimedia Commons

Alexander Neckam (1157–1219) reported the use of the compass for maritime navigation in the English Channel in his manuscripts De untensilibus and De naturis rerum, written between 1187 and 1202.

The sailors, moreover, as they sail over the sea, when in cloudy whether they can no longer profit by the light of the sun, or when the world is wrapped up in the darkness of the shades of night, and they are ignorant to what point of the compass their ship’s course is directed, they touch the magnet with a needle, which (the needle) is whirled round in a circle until, when its motion ceases, its point looks direct to the north.

This and other references to the compass suggest that it use was well known in Europe by this time.

A drawing of a compass in a mid 14th-century copy of Epistola de magnete of Peter Peregrinus. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The earliest reference to maritime navigation with a compass in the Muslim world in in the Persian text Jawāmi ul-Hikāyāt wa Lawāmi’ ul-Riwāyāt (Collections of Stories and Illustrations of Histories) written by Sadīd ud-Dīn Muhammad Ibn Muhammad ‘Aufī Bukhārī (1171-1242) in 1232. There is still no certainty as to whether there was a knowledge transfer from China to Europe, either direct or via the Islamic Empire, or independent multiple discovery. Magnetism and the magnetic compass went through a four-hundred-year period of investigation and discovery until William Gilbert (1544–1603) published his De magnete in 1600. 

De Magnete, title page of 1628 edition Source: Wikimedia Commons

The earliest compasses used for navigation were in the form of a magnetic needle floating in a bowl of water. These were later replaced with dry mounted magnetic needles. The first discovery was the fact that the compass needle doesn’t actually point at the North Pole, the difference is called magnetic variation or magnetic declination. The Chinese knew of magnetic declination in the seventh century. In Europe the discovery is attributed to Georg Hartmann (1489–1564), who describes it in an unpublished letter to Duke Albrecht of Prussia. However, Georg von Peuerbach (1423–1461) had already built a portable sundial on which the declination for Vienna is marked on the compass.

NIMA Magnetic Variation Map 2000 Source: Wikimedia Commons

There followed the discovery that magnetic declination varies from place to place. Later in the seventeenth century it was also discovered that declination also varies over time. We now know that the Earth’s magnetic pole wanders, but it was first Gilbert, who suggested that the Earth is a large magnet with poles. The next discovery was magnetic dip or magnetic inclination. This describes the fact that a compass needle does not sit parallel to the ground but points up or down following the lines of magnetic field. The discovery of magnetic inclination is also attributed to Georg Hartmann. The sixteenth century English, seaman Robert Norman rediscovered it and described how to measure it in his The Newe Attractive (1581) His work heavily influenced Gilbert. 

Illustration of magnetic dip from Norman’s book, The Newe Attractive Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Portolan chart, the earliest known sea chart, emerged in the Mediterranean in the late thirteenth century, not long after the compass, with which it is closely associated, appeared in Europe. The oldest surviving Portolan, the Carta Pisana is a map of the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and part of the Atlantic coast.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The origins of the Portolan chart remain something of a mystery, as they are very sophisticated artifacts that appear to display no historical evolution. A Portolan has a very accurate presentation of the coastlines with the locations of the major harbours and town on the coast. Otherwise, they have no details further inland, indicating that they were designed for use in coastal sailing. A distinctive feature of Portolans is their wind roses or compass roses located at various points on the charts. These are points with lines radiating outwards in the sixteen headings, on later charts thirty-two, of the mariner’s compass.

Central wind rose on the Carta Pisana

Portolan charts have no latitude or longitude lines and are on the so-called plane chart projection, which treats the area being mapped as flat, ignoring the curvature of the Earth. This is alright for comparatively small areas, such as the Mediterranean, but leads to serious distortion, when applied to larger areas.

During the Contact Period, Portolan charts were extended to include the west coast of Africa, as the Portuguese explorers worked their way down it. Later, the first charts of the Americas were also drawn in the same way. Portolan style charts remained popular down to the eighteenth century.

Portolan chart of Central America c. 1585-1595 Source:

A central problem with Portolan charts over larger areas is that on a globe constant compass bearings are not straight lines. The solution to the problem was found by the Portuguese cosmographer Pedro Nunes (1502–1578) and published in his Tratado em defensam da carta de marear (Treatise Defending the Sea Chart), (1537).

Image of Portuguese mathematician Pedro Nunes in Panorama magazine (1843); Lisbon, Portugal. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The line is a spiral known as a loxodrome or rhumb lines. Nunes problem was that he didn’t know how to reproduce his loxodromes on a flat map.

Image of a loxodrome, or rhumb line, spiraling towards the North Pole Source: Wikimedia Commons

The solution to the problem was provided by the map maker Gerard Mercator (1512–1594), when he developed the so-called Mercator projection, which he published as a world map, Nova et Aucta Orbis Terrae Descriptio ad Usum Navigantium Emendate Accommodata (New and more complete representation of the terrestrial globe properly adapted for use in navigation) in 1569.

Source: Wikimedia Commons
The 1569 Mercator world map Source: Wikimedia Commons.

On the Mercator projection lines of constant compass bearing, loxodromes, are straight lines. This however comes at a price. In order to achieve the required navigational advantage, the lines of latitude on the map get further apart as one moves away from the centre of projection. This leads to an area distortion that increases the further north or south on goes from the equator. This means that Greenland, slightly more than two million square kilometres, appear lager than Africa, over thirty million square kilometres.

Mercator did not publish an explanation of the mathematics used to produce his projection, so initially others could reproduce it. In the late sixteenth century three English mathematicians John Dee (1527–c. 1608), Thomas Harriot (c. 1560–1621), and Edward Wright (1561–1615) all individually worked out the mathematics of the Mercator projection. Although Dee and Harriot both used this knowledge and taught it to others in their respective functions as mathematical advisors to the Muscovy Trading Company and Sir Walter Raleigh, only Wright published the solution in his Certaine Errors in Navigation, arising either of the Ordinarie Erroneous Making or Vsing of the Sea Chart, Compasse, Crosse Staffe, and Tables of Declination of the Sunne, and Fixed Starres Detected and Corrected. (The Voyage of the Right Ho. George Earle of Cumberl. to the Azores, &c.) published in London in 1599. A second edition with a different, even longer, title was published in the same year. Further editions were published in 1610 and 1657. 

Source: Wikimedia Commons
Wright explained the Mercator projection with the analogy of a sphere being inflated like a bladder inside a hollow cylinder. The sphere is expanded uniformly, so that the meridians lengthen in the same proportion as the parallels, until each point of the expanding spherical surface comes into contact with the inside of the cylinder. This process preserves the local shape and angles of features on the surface of the original globe, at the expense of parts of the globe with different latitudes becoming expanded by different amounts. The cylinder is then opened out into a two-dimensional rectangle. The projection is a boon to navigators as rhumb lines are depicted as straight lines. Source: Wikimedia Commons

His mathematical solution for the Mercator projection had been published previously with his permission and acknowledgement by Thomas Blundeville (c. 1522–c. 1606) in his Exercises (1594) and by William Barlow (died 1625) in his The Navigator’s Supply (1597). However, Jodocus Hondius (1563–1612) published maps using Wright’s work without acknowledgement in Amsterdam in 1597, which provoked Wright to publish his Certaine Errors. Despite its availability, the uptake on the Mercator projection was actually very slow and it didn’t really come into widespread use until the eighteenth century.

Wright’s “Chart of the World on Mercator’s Projection” (c. 1599), otherwise known as the Wright–Molyneux map because it was based on the globe of Emery Molyneux (died 1598) Source: Wikimedia Commons

Following the cartographical trail, we have over sprung a lot of developments in navigation to which we will return in the next episode. 


Filed under History of Cartography, History of Mathematics, History of Navigation, Renaissance Science

2 responses to “Renaissance science – XXVII

  1. “Portolan charts have no latitude or longitude lines and are on the so-called plate carrée projection or plane chart, which treats the area being mapped as flat, ignoring the curvature of the Earth.”

    Plate carrée is something different: it’s where the longitude and latitude of a geographical position are plotted directly as the x and y positions on the map or chart. It only approximates a plane chart close to the equator, further north or south it exaggerates east/west directions compared to north/south which a plane chart wouldn’t.

    In a way plate carrée is the opposite of plane projection: plate carrée is sort of the simplest projection for large areas, acknowledging latitude and longitude, whereas plane projections are the simplest projections for small areas, ignoring latitude and longitude.

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