On the Magnet, by William Gilbert

Chap. xiii. The observations of variation by seamen vary, for the most part, and are uncertain: partly from error and inexperience, and the imperfections of the instruments; and partly from the sea being seldom so calm that the shadows or lights can remain quite steady on the instruments.

A fter the variation of the compass had first been noticed, some more diligent navigators took pains to investigate in various ways the difference of aspect of the mariners’ compass. Yet, to the great detriment of the nautical art, this has not been done so exactly as it ought to have been. For either being somewhat ignorant they have not understood any accurate method or they have used bad and absurd instruments, or else they merely follow some conjecture arising from an ill-formed opinion as to some prime meridian or magnetick pole; whilst others again transcribe from others, and parade these observations as their own; and they who, very unskilful themselves, first of all committed their observations to writing are, as by the prerogative of time, held in esteem by others, and their posterity does not think it safe to differ from them. Hence in long navigations, especially to the East Indies, the records by the Portuguese of the deviating compass are seen to be unskilful: for whoever reads their writings will easily understand that they are in error in very many things, and do not rightly understand the construction of the Portuguese compass (the lily of which diverges by half a rumbe from the needles toward the west), nor its use in taking the variation. Hence, while they show the variation of the compass in different places, it is uncertain whether they measure the deviation by a true meridional compass or by some other whose needles are displaced from the lily. The Portuguese (as is patent in their writings) make use of the Portuguese compass, whose magnetick needles are fixed aside from the lily by half of one rumbe toward the east. Moreover on the sea the observation of the variation is a matter of great difficulty, on account of the motion of the ship and the uncertainty of the deviation, even with the more skilful observers, if they use the best made instruments hitherto known and used. Hence there arise different opinions concerning the magnetick deviation: as, for instance, near the Island of St. Helena the Portuguese Rodriguez de Lagos measures half a rumbe. The Dutch in their nautical log fix it at a whole rumbe. Kendall, the expert Englishman, with a true meridional compass admits only a sixth part of a rumbe. A little to the East of Cape Agullias Diego Alfonso makes no variation, and shows by an Astrolabe that the compass remains in the true meridian. Rodriguez shows that the compass at Cape Agulhas has no variation if it is of Portuguese construction, in which the needles are inclined half a rumbe to the East. And there is the same confusion, negligence, and vanity in very many other instances.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:54