Navigation Research Paper

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‘Navigation,’ from the Latin navis, a ship, and agere, to drive, originally referred to the art of sailing a vessel from one point to another, but is now also applied to guiding aircraft and spacecraft. Beginning with early evidence for deep sea voyaging, this research paper examines the worldwide development of navigation and touches upon the implications for humankind of navigating freely around the globe and into space.

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1. Early Navigation In The Pacific

Although most accounts of the development of navigation begin with early seafaring in the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, recent research points to the Pacific as the region where humans first sailed routinely far out to sea. Around 1500 BC Stone Age seafarers began expanding eastward from island Southeast Asia toward the open Pacific, where, over the next 2,500 or so years, they and their descendants discovered and settled all the inhabitable islands of remote Oceania, the vast island world composed of eastern Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia.

Sailing eastward into the ocean was a formidable task as the trade winds blow from the east and interisland distance increase until they reach more than 3,500 km in the far reaches of Polynesia. To accomplish this, pioneering seafarers sailed in outrigger and double canoes, exploited seasonal wind shifts, and navigated without instruments by observing the stars, sun, and other celestial bodies, ocean swells, winds, birds, and other phenomena. They oriented on a conceptual compass of up to 32 points labeled with the rising and setting points of key stars and constellations or the distinctive winds that blew from particular directions. Although they might outline their compass on the ground for teaching purposes, navigators sailed only with its image in mind, along with memorized compass bearings to and from the islands within their voyaging range. They steered on stars and sun when low on the horizon, or on the dominant swells and prevailing wind, all calibrated to their compass points. Their system did not include latitude and longitude, although some navigators may have judged north-south position by what stars passed directly over them, and from the height of Polaris and other circumpolar stars. Progress en route was estimated in terms of the shifting bearings of an unseen reference island off to one side of the course, and other mental plotting methods. To detect land before it could be seen, navigators looked for land-nesting birds fishing out to sea, disruptions in the ocean swells caused by islands, and other signs. That virtually every Oceanic island is part of an archipelago both facilitated discovery of new islands and made navigating between widely separated ones easier. A navigator could make landfall on any island within the chain containing the target island, then reorient toward the final destination.

However, although this Pacific initiative demonstrates that long, navigated voyages can be made without instruments, charts or mathematical calculations, it did not lead to the global, science-based navigation methods employed today.

2. Navigating Offshore Europe, Asia, And Africa

While canoe voyagers were expanding over the Pacific, other maritime peoples were sailing along the shores of the linked continents of Africa, Europe, and Asia, and to and from adjacent islands. Sea traders and raiders had long sailed in the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, and the China Sea. By Roman times—if not before—trade was flowing between the Mediterranean world and China via the Indian Ocean. Judging from Greek, Arab, and Chinese sources, although much voyaging was coastal, and thus involved navigating primarily by landmarks and soundings, some routes took mariners well away from land, and therefore required at a minimum the ability to sail by steady winds and observations of the stars. Voyages made between Arabia and India by means of alternating monsoon winds provide a case in point.

3. Deep Sea Navigation And Global Voyaging

Although Herodotus mentioned a Phoenician expedition made around Africa, and much later Viking sailors were able to travel from one island to another across the North Atlantic, regular sailing beyond the linked continents did not begin until the fifteenth century AD, when the Portuguese developed methods for deep-sea navigation. Early in that century Portuguese mariners began to explore down the African coast, but found that whereas it was easy to sail south with the prevailing northerly winds, tacking back against these was most difficult. Experience gained in sailing to and from the Azores and islands scattered down the African coast had acquainted them with the global winds, the easterly trade winds of the tropics and the westerlies of the temperate latitudes. In sequence, these offered a way to sail back from Africa with fair winds all the way. By heading directly out to sea, these mariners learned that they could sail in a long slant northwest across the easterly trade winds, and, upon reaching the belt of westerlies, could then turn east to sail downwind to Portugal.

However, methods worked out in the Mediterranean for navigating with compass, rudimentary charts, and dead reckoning (estimating position by recording compass heading and distance run) proved inadequate on these long, roundabout crossings. Accordingly, the navigators adapted an astronomical technique for measuring the height of Polaris above the horizon to monitor their progress northward until they were directly west of their destination in Portugal. Before departing from, for example, Lisbon, they marked the altitude of Polaris as seen from that port on a quadrant, a simple instrument for measuring the height of stars above the horizon. (As Polaris was then located about 3.5 degrees from the north celestial pole, with corrections its angular altitude indicated the latitude of the observer.) Then, on the return voyage as they headed west from Africa and then started curving to the north, they watched Polaris rise higher and higher in the sky. Using their quadrant they determined when Polaris had risen to the same height as seen from Lisbon, and then turned east to sail downwind with the westerlies, keeping the Pole Star at the same height in order to reach the port directly.

The crisis caused when, upon crossing the Equator, Polaris dropped below the horizon was resolved in the 1480s. In one of the first examples of a government bringing science to bear on an applied problem, King Joao II enlisted astronomers, mathematicians, and other scholars to develop a method whereby the height of the sun could be used in place of that of Polaris to determine latitude. With the resultant ‘Rule of the Sun,’ and tables of the sun’s daily position at various latitudes, navigators were able to sail farther and farther down the African coast. In 1497–8 Vasco da Gama sailed in a long arc across the trade winds to the South Atlantic westerlies, then turned east to sail around Africa and up its east coast. From there, under the direction of a local navigator (arguably either an Arab or a Gujerati), he reached India, thereby opening a direct route from Europe to this fabled source of spices, jewels, and other riches.

In 1492 Christopher Columbus used techniques learned from the Portuguese to sail with the trade winds to the Bahamas (which he insisted were outliers of Asia), and then returned by heading north to catch the westerlies. Then in 1522 Juan del Cano brought the Victoria back to Spain, completing the first circumnavigation begun by his fallen commander, Ferdinand Magellan. At last the ‘world encompassed,’ thanks to Iberian seamanship in exploiting global winds and in applying navigational innovations pioneered in other seafaring traditions. For example, a good case can be made that the Chinese developed the magnetic compass, and employed it at sea at least several centuries before its appearance in the Mediterranean in the twelfth century. Furthermore, although the Portuguese use of the height of Polaris to judge progress northward from Africa was a genuine breakthrough, Arab navigators had long before mastered the art of sailing across the Indian Ocean with the aid of Polaris measurements to locate headlands and ports.

4. Further Navigational Improvements And The World System

The Iberians exploited their maritime achievements by establishing maritime empires, but soon were outgunned and surpassed in both nautical innovation and techniques of colonial exploitation by the Dutch and English. As ship design and seamanship advanced, quantitative navigation evolved through the further application of mathematics and astronomy, and developments in instrumentation and cartography. Astronomical tables multiplied, eventually leading to the publication from 1678 onwards of nautical almanacs. Instruments for measuring the altitude of celestial bodies improved, leading to the reflecting octant and sextant in the eighteenth century. Magnetic variation was mapped globally, and improved compasses and ways of measuring distance sailed were introduced, along with charting innovations, including the Mercator projection that enabled mariners to plot long courses with reasonable accuracy.

The last great innovation of this era of sail was the marine chronometer. Whereas navigators could determine latitude, they could only estimate their longitude, resulting in uncertainty, delay, and sometimes maritime tragedy. Because the earth turns on its axis, to determine the longitude of a ship, that is its position east or west of a reference point such as England’s Greenwich Observatory, navigators had to keep the time of that reference point. With the development in the late eighteenth century of marine chronometers that could keep time accurately on transoceanic voyages, and their widespread adoption in the nineteenth century, they could at last calculate longitude. The celestial navigation system that had been evolving over the centuries was finally complete. Given clear weather, a navigator could expeditiously and safely direct a ship to any port over the globe. With the conversion from sail to steam, the nautical means for efficient global maritime trade were in place, and the modern world system erected upon it boomed.

5. Navigating Electronically

However, the weak point in navigating by magnetic compass, chronometer, and stellar observations remained the changing weather. When clouds, rain, or fog prevented navigators from seeing the stars they had to fall back upon dead reckoning, which, even with instruments for measuring direction of travel and distance run, suffered from cumulative error. Radio direction finding pioneered in the 1910s was an early but only partial solution. However thankful fogbound navigators were to gain radio bearings, these were not very accurate, and available only along the coasts of industrial nations. The first truly all-weather position finding system, LORAN, was developed during World War II for wartime navigation. The reception of synchronized pulses from two pairs of transmitters located at carefully surveyed positions resulted in accurate navigational fixes. The subsequent development of inertial navigational systems was stimulated by further military requirements: guiding missiles and providing bombers and submarines with position information needed for targeting. Employing accelerometers and gyroscopes to determine changes in velocity and direction, these systems provide a continuous indication of position, subject, however, to cumulative error. The most accurate and revolutionary of the electronic navigational technologies is the Global Positioning System (GPS), a US military system made accessible to civilian users, though initially degraded in accuracy. (Russia has its own Glonass system.) The GPS system depends upon a constellation of 24 satellites in low earth orbit, which transmit signals that cheap hand-held receivers can process to determine latitude, longitude, and altitude with great accuracy. It was fully operational by the early 1990s, and is now widely used around the world, though not without some misgivings over military control.

6. Global Navigation And Beyond

Efforts to develop techniques of way-finding that began when seafarers first sailed beyond sight of land resulted eventually in a global system of navigation whereby mariners employed the starry points of the celestial sphere to guide their vessels. Now ships, aircraft, and even lone hikers are guided precisely over the globe within an artificial sphere of orbiting satellites. Sophisticated navigational tools also direct robotic and crewed spaceships through interplanetary space, and eventually will be employed to guide them to the stars. Considering the globalizing impacts on human society that have flowed from navigating with increasing accuracy around the planet, thought must now be given to what transformations await humankind as they spread beyond the natal planet.


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