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The History of Early Dead Reckoning and - New World Explorers

The History of Early Dead Reckoning and - New World Explorers

The History of Early Dead Reckoning and - New World

The History of Early Dead Reckoning and Celestial Navigation: Empirical Reality Versus Theory Douglas T. Peck The European Renaissance, centered in the Mediterranean, saw the first meaningful but tenuous advance in the art (or science) of ocean navigation. Ocean navigation advanced from theory to widespread practical use in the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth-century when the magnetic compass progressed from a magnetized needle floating on a straw to the 32 point compass in use during the Columbian period. The basic form of navigation during this period was the simple and easily mastered deadreckoning, using the magnetic compass for direction, and an estimate of the distance sailed plotted on a portolan chart to fix position. By the late fifteenth-century, dead-reckoning navigation had been refined to the point that Columbus and other competent navigators were making long ocean passages to the New World and return with skill and accuracy. During this same period, celestial navigation, which in an earlier crude form pre-dated deadreckoning, was also being developed for marine navigation. Fixing one s position on the face of the earth by reference to the heavenly bodies had been practiced by mathematicians and cosmographers since ancient times. However, it was during the late fifteenth and early sixteenthcentury that an attempt was made to move celestial observations out of the hands of the landbound and learned mathematicians and cosmographers and make it available for practical marine navigation. Integration of this new, complicated, and developing marine celestial navigation into the established and trusted dead-reckoning navigation produced arguments pro-and-con between the learned cosmographers and the experienced, practical, and conservative seamen and pilots concerning the true role and application of celestial observations to ocean navigation of the period. These arguments and indeed the conduct of just the basic dead-reckoning navigation, as well as the conduct and application of celestial observations, were little understood by the historians and writers of the period. For this reason the true picture of late fifteenth and early sixteenth-century navigation is filled with misconceptions, distortions, and in some cases, patently unfounded fiction. Much of what we know of early navigation comes from the extant sixteenth-century writings of Columbus, Martin Cortes, Pedro de Medina, Amerigo Vespucci, Peter Martyr, Richard Eden, William Bourne, and Richard Hakluyt. The most prominent twentieth century writers on the subject are, D. W. Waters, Eva G. R. Taylor, and Samuel Elliot Morison, who draw heavily from these early writers and allied early documents. It should be noted that most of the sixteenthcentury writers on navigation were land-bound theoretical mathematicians, cosmographers, or independent writers with little or no empirical experience in navigation at sea. And in like manner, most of the current widely published writers who interpret these early documents and write on the history of early navigation are also from the ranks of theoretical rather than experienced professional navigators. This over-emphasis on theory versus practical application has produced an undue acceptance of numerous misconceptions related to early navigation. This study examines the writings of both the early sixteenth-century and later twentieth century historians to identify these misconceptions and errors that have been introduced into the written history of early navigation. 1

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