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- Naval technology, Book reviews, Naval Technology
- RAN Ships
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- March 2006 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
by Alan Gurney
W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2005. rrp A$30.00
Reviewed by Tony Howland
In the year 1552, one John Hamilton wrote ‘a skipper can not guide his ship to a good haven without direction of his compass.’ To any mariner, ancient or modern, this statement comes as a blinding glimpse of the obvious. However, as Alan Gurney’s eminently readable book relates, it took many centuries, from well before Mr. Hamilton put forward this jewel of wisdom until the twentieth century, before the magnetic compass achieved any degree of reliability.
It was, of course, superseded by the gyro compass, but even then, hard experience dictated that the gyro should always be backed up by a magnetic compass. In the mid-1940s, the British Admiralty decreed that their gyro-fitted ships no longer required a magnetic compass. HMS Vanguard, on passage to South Africa in 1947, had a catastrophic power failure, disabling her several gyro compasses. Only luck and good weather enabled her to complete her voyage safely, steering by the stars. Not surprisingly, today a gyro compass, backed by a magnetic compass, is standard fit in merchant and fighting navies around the world.
Early efforts centred on the lodestone, which was found to have the remarkable property of aligning itself north and south. Transforming this property into a reliable means of guidance was an extremely slow and cumbersome process, hindered as much by superstition and incompetence as by interpersonal rivalry and bureaucratic intervention. Many famous names appear along the way, including the polymath Edmund Halley (of comet fame) and Matthew Flinders, whose Flinders bar remains a standard part of most modern magnetic compasses.
And just when real progress was being made, the advent of iron-clad ship, with the attendant deviation, threw the whole process back to the drawing board, a situation which was really only resolved by the introduction of the gyroscope.
Gurney’s style is that of the true story teller, lively and fast paced. There is enough technical detail for the navigators, but the author presents this with great facility, and humour.
In short, Compass is a good read.