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 log-reel, line, log-ship and sand-glass were used for determining a ship’s speed.

How did ships know where they were before seamen could get an accurate reading of their east/west location?


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


Find out what longitude is and what makes it so hard to measure.

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


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


Our item of the month looks at one of the most fascinating collections in the NMM Manuscript archives: portolan charts. Consisting of fifty-eight manuscript atlases and around fifty larger charts, the collection spans three centuries of navigational practice before mass-produced printed charts displaced them during the eighteenth century.

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


Our Item of the Month features printed charts and views of the Battle of Bunker Hill, from the chart and map collections.