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The Lost Art of Finding Our Way

The Lost Art of Finding Our Way

John Edward Huth
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Harvard University Press
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  • Book Info
    The Lost Art of Finding Our Way
    Book Description:

    Long before GPS and Google Earth, humans traveled vast distances using environmental clues and simple instruments. What else is lost when technology substitutes for our innate capacity to find our way? Illustrated with 200 drawings, this narrative-part treatise, part travelogue, and part navigational history-brings our own world into sharper view.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-07481-1
    Subjects: History of Science & Technology, Astronomy, Aquatic Sciences, Physics, Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[vi])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vii]-[x])
  3. 1. Before the Bubble
    (pp. 1-10)

    Only a few years ago you would have sworn the commuter next to you was crazy. He talks into the air, as if to an imaginary friend, while playing with a tiny box he holds in front of his face. His whole world is a bubble two feet around his head. If, by a miracle, you get his attention and ask him questions, he can only answer by manipulating his tiny box. He checks the box and can tell you tomorrow’s weather, which way is north, and the name of that bright star in the sky. You hide the box,...

  4. 2. Maps in the Mind
    (pp. 11-29)

    I was alone, crossing a large open stretch of water off the Cranberry Islands in Maine when the fog closed in. I had no map and the small recreational kayak I’d rented didn’t come with a compass. With panic rising in my throat, I told myself to calm down and pay attention. Which way was the wind blowing? The wind was from the southwest. Good. Which way was the swell running? The swell was from the south. Again, good. Could I hear anything noteworthy? I could hear waves breaking on the steep rocky beach to the northwest. Although I didn’t...

  5. 3. On Being Lost
    (pp. 30-52)

    People get lost in many different ways, but their reactions can be remarkably similar. A storm descends in the mountains, obliterating landmarks to a climber. A hunter obsessively concentrates on following the track of an elk and loses his way in deep woods. A kayaker paddles into a fog bank. A pilot loses his sense of the horizon. A sailor can’t find the way back to land. They can all experience a sense of panic brought on by the ensuing disorientation.

    It’s one thing to get lost in a parking lot where help is nearby, or a GPS device is...

  6. 4. Dead Reckoning
    (pp. 53-80)

    In chapter 2 I described how we find locations on a mental map using a history of travels. This process, called dead reckoning, is probably the most common form of navigation and can be developed into a careful practice. Throughout the world, languages have words and phrases that describe spatial orientation and communicate information about journeys.

    If you were on a desert island, how could you measure distances and communicate these to others? Readily available measures are on our body and in the environment. In ancient Egypt short measures were based on finger, hand, and arm lengths. The ancient Egyptian...

  7. 5. Urban Myths of Navigation
    (pp. 81-98)

    Spatial orientation is critical to navigation. From the origins of words for the cardinal points (east, west, north, and south) in different languages, you can see how major environmental features were historically used for orientation. “How-to” books and outdoors magazines often have chapters or articles with descriptions of clever ways to establish orientation using nontraditional means. These often seem folkloric or like urban mythology. There are far too many of these to catalog here, and frankly, most work only under limited circumstances. However, I choose to trace the origins and histories of three curious methods of orientation that are sometimes...

  8. 6. Maps and Compasses
    (pp. 99-124)

    You may recall that in chapter 2, I described the difference between route knowledge and survey knowledge. Route knowledge is largely one-dimensional, describing paths and connections. Survey knowledge is inherently two-dimensional and allows shortcuts and an understanding of the physical relationship among many landmarks. Mammals, including humans, appear to have survey knowledge once they’ve had a chance to explore their environment.

    How is survey knowledge communicated? We can talk about geographic features and their relationships, but this tends to convey only a portrayal of routes; that is to say, if someone describes a region to you, she may say, “Turn...

  9. 7. Stars
    (pp. 125-160)

    It seems that humans have always seen patterns in the sky. The earliest known star maps may be found in the Lascaux Cave in southwestern France, dating roughly from 18,000 to 15,000 BC. These paintings show clusters that resemble the Summer Triangle and Pleiades (described below). We don’t know when was the earliest use of stars for navigation, but we do know that the Pacific Lapita people ventured from the Bismarck Archipelago northeast of New Guinea, over large expanses of ocean to settle remote islands. These voyages commenced around 1300 BC. The Lapita are believed to be the ancestors of...

  10. 8. The Sun and the Moon
    (pp. 161-192)

    We’ve already seen the use of the Sun in navigation: the naming of “east” with sunrise and “west” with sunset in many cultures. Although its influence on the climate of Earth is profound, the motion of the Sun throughout the year is more complicated than the regular motion of the stars and presents more of a challenge for someone who uses it to navigate. The Moon is more complicated still, yet its motion presents a predictable pattern that ancient civilizations discerned. For the earliest navigators the Sun was probably most useful as a direction indicator, particularly in temperate climes. The...

  11. 9. Where Heaven Meets Earth
    (pp. 193-218)

    A number of creation mythologies speak of a time when Heaven separated from the Earth. The evident human fascination with the interface between the sky and the ground may have its roots in the common experience of distant views. As you stare off into the distance, across the sea or a broad plain, objects appear smaller and smaller. Features get distorted in the far-off haze until your eyes rest on a boundary where the Earth and sky meet: the horizon.

    A heavenly body’s altitude above the horizon is measured in celestial navigation. Light from an object in outer space must...

  12. 10. Latitude and Longitude
    (pp. 219-251)

    The norse and Polynesians had a vague sense of latitude. For the Polynesians the concept of a “star overhead” marked the zenith location of an island. It was imprecise but associated a star with a place on Earth. Likewise, the Vinland Sagas show how the Norse identified the latitude of their camp in North America by the path of the Sun. Nautical charts in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries depicted geographic features faithfully but did not portray latitude and longitude. The use of these coordinates arose in navigation when celestial observations were associated with places on Earth and captured on...

  13. 11. Red Sky at Night
    (pp. 252-290)

    At a not-too-distant time in the past, weather dictated travel. In the early era of sail, mariners might have to wait weeks in port for a favorable wind to carry them to their destination. The ability to anticipate a storm was a critical skill for any competent navigator. Winds are used in many cultures as a compass and given their names as cardinal directions. In our era people rarely notice the signs of the weather and rely instead on forecasts published in newspapers, appearing online, or from a cell-phone application.

    The development of instruments such as the barometer and the...

  14. 12. Reading the Waves
    (pp. 291-317)

    On the ocean, waves are usually a by-product of the weather: wind over water. It could be a gentle breeze creating a cat’s paw pattern on a pond or giant swells kicked up by a typhoon. To most the ocean surface may seem random and inscrutable, yet there is almost a boundless amount of information hidden in plain view, if only the meaning can be deciphered. The existence of distant storms is betrayed by ocean swells racing over thousands of miles with undiminished power. The presence of an island thirty miles away will reveal itself through the pattern of reflected...

  15. 13. Soundings and Tides
    (pp. 318-337)

    The oceans are miles deep and have a varied bathymetry. In contrast, the ocean surface is highly uniform because of the fluid nature of water. Only close to shore do the continental shelves create relatively shallow seas with depths of two hundred feet or less. Tide and water depth both played important roles in early voyaging around Northern Europe. The character of Northern European seas allowed for a kind of navigation based on sounding. Fishermen often found their way by sampling the depth and character of the seafloor. With the discovery of productive fishing banks off the coast of North...

  16. 14. Currents and Gyres
    (pp. 338-363)

    Westerners have known about ocean currents since the days of Ponce de Leon, who fought against a powerful flow in his voyages near Florida. In these waters the Gulf Stream sweeps northward at speeds of four miles per hour, nearly as fast as, or faster than, a sailing vessel itself. On April 8, 1513, de Leon’s vessels were pushed backward as they were trying to sail farther south off the coast of Florida. This baffled de Leon, who noted in his log: “A current such that, although they had great wind, they could not proceed forward, but backward and it...

  17. 15. Speed and Stability of Hulls
    (pp. 364-381)

    Although the underlying physics describing how watercraft move through the water is the same throughout the world, marine environments are varied, and the needs of different cultures can dictate their design. The shape of a vessel’s hull is a major consideration in navigation, particularly when combined with sails. A vessel’s speed and ability to move with or into the wind has to be taken into account when calculating dead reckoning.

    The use of vessels to carry humans over large stretches of water goes back as far as recorded history. There is circumstantial evidence of the use of seaworthy craft much...

  18. 16. Against the Wind
    (pp. 382-402)

    Although the earliest watercraft were surely powered by humans, this imposed a natural limit on voyaging. Humans can only paddle or row so long before needing rest. If a large crew is required to row a cargo vessel, the crew must be fed and some of its effort must be expended to transport the food that fuels its effort. On the other hand, if the wind can be harnessed to propel a vessel, the ship needs a far smaller crew: one that tends to the sails, the steering, and navigation. A natural limitation on long-distance sailing, however, is the nature...

  19. 17. Fellow Wanderers
    (pp. 403-427)

    We aren’t the only ones on a journey. We share paths with other travelers, even if temporarily. If we know their habits or even stop them to ask directions, it can help us find our way. This chapter is about those who wander: what they can tell us about where we are and what they can inform us about where we’re going.

    The modern English word for planets comes from the Greek πλανήτης (planetai), which is a derivative of the word for “wanderers.” The brightest planets — Venus, Mars, and Jupiter — can act as temporary beacons for travelers, but...

  20. 18. Baintabu’s Story
    (pp. 428-466)

    Navigators don’t exist in isolation from society but are part of its fabric. The techniques of navigation don’t exist as separate entities but have to be woven together during a journey. Below is a fictionalized account based on the legend of a female navigator named Baintabu from the Gilbert Islands. I try to show how the elements of culture, navigation, and voyaging might come together. Baintabu’s story culminates on a voyage from Tarawa Atoll to Abemama in the present-day Republic of Kiribati.

    French priest Ernest Sabatier recounted the legend of the woman navigator Baintabu from the Gilbert Islands in his...

  21. Appendix 1: Major Star Coordinates and Mapping onto Earth
    (pp. 467-470)
  22. Appendix 2: Some Significant Events in Latitude and Longitude
    (pp. 471-472)
  23. Appendix 3: Toledo Tables
    (pp. 473-476)
  24. Appendix 4: Sailing Capabilities in Baintabu’s Story
    (pp. 477-478)
  25. Glossary
    (pp. 479-498)
  26. Notes
    (pp. 499-512)
  27. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 513-516)
  28. Index
    (pp. 517-528)