History of navigation

From mapping the stars to the quest to determine longtitude, read all about the astronomical and horological methods used throughout history to aid navigation. Plus, read about the evolution of compass design and discover how charts were used to map the world. 


The ‘standard’ nautical mile is taken as 6080 feet (1.151 statute miles or 1853 metres) and is the unit of length used in sea and air navigation.

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Take a virtual spin and explore one of the National Maritime Museum's most important globes.


The National Maritime Museum holds a unique collection of around 100,000 historical sea charts and maps. 


Our collection focuses on three key areas: precision marine timekeeping for navigators, precision timekeeping for astronomers and the broader area of domestic timekeeping and time distribution.

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Compasses are mainly navigation aids in the West, but Asian and Middle Eastern cultures have also used them for spiritual guidance. 

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Polaris is the brightest star in the Ursa Minor constellation, and has been used by sailors for navigating at sea.

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The quintant, once owned by King Edward VII,  has a silver frame and an ivory handle.


A theodolite is a surveying instrument with a telescope for measuring horizontal and vertical angles.


A small military map of the Battle of Fishguard, which led to the defeat of the last foreign invasion of Britain during the Napoleonic Wars.

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Ever seen naval officers in movies looking through one of these? Find out why.