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From the Bronze Age mariners of the Mediterranean to contemporary sailors using satellite-based technologies, the history of navigation at sea, the art of finding a position and setting a course, is fascinating. The scientific and technological developments that have enabled accurate measurements of position were central to exploration, trade, and the opening up of new continents, and the resulting journeys taken under their influence have had a profound influence on world history.
In this Very Short Introduction Jim Bennett looks at the history of navigation, starting with the distinctive cultures of navigation that are defined geographically – the Mediterranean Sea, and the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic Oceans. He shows how the adoption of mathematical methods, the use of instruments, the writing of textbooks and the publication of charts all combined to create a more standardised practice. Methods such as longitude-finding by chronometer and lunar distance were complemented by the routine business of recording courses and reckoning position 'by account'. Bennett also introduces the incredible array of instruments relied on by sailors, from astrolabes, sextants, and chronometers, to our more modern radio receivers, electronic equipment, and charts, and highlights the crucial role played by the individual qualities of endeavour and resourcefulness from mathematicians, scientists, and seamen in finding their way at sea. The story of navigation combines the societal, the technical, and the human, and it was vital for shaping the modern world.
1: Early navigational cultures
2: Medieval and Renaissance learning and practice
3: A mathematical science
4: Dead reckoning, longitude and time
5: The zenith of the mathematical seamen
6: The electronic age
Jim Bennett is a historian of science who has held curatorial posts in national museums in London and in university museums in Cambridge and Oxford, where he was Director of the Museum of the History of Science. He has been President of the British Society for the History of Science and of the Scientific Instrument Commission of the International Union of History and Philosophy of Science. He is currently President of the Hakluyt Society. His books include The Divided Circle: A History of Instruments for Astronomy, Navigation, and Surveying (Phaidon-Christie's, 1987), and London's Leonardo: The life and work of Robert Hooke (OUP, 2003), with Michael Cooper, Michael Hunter, and Lisa Jardine.
"This elegant and compelling narrative, spanning all periods, cultures, and geographical regions, provides a remarkably accessible introduction to the concepts and technology of navigation."
– Captain M. K. Barritt Royal Navy, former Hydrographer of the Navy
"A masterly and comprehensive survey of navigational techniques across many centuries of technical skill and astute practical innovation. The book combines lucid exposition of the principal maritime methods with fascinating commentary on the historical relation between navigators' mastery of calculation, observation and improvisation."
– Simon Schaffer, University of Cambridge