How did advances in marine navigation, from the 13th century CE through the 18th century CE, help to catapult Western Europe into global preeminence?

How do advances in marine navigation technology help nations develop and sustain world influence?

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The open sea is a never-ending desert of water – the same in all directions. How did ancient mariners cross the ocean without GPS? The principles behind “modern” innovations used by our GPS-enabled devices are surprisingly similar to those used by technologies that guided seafarers hundreds of years ago. Whether by the stars, the astrolabe, or the kamal, sailors learned to navigate the seas using triangulation. This Inquiry Unit focuses on the technologies of navigation, beginning with the compass and ending with GPS. Students will analyze primary and secondary source documents and engage in hands-on Formative Performance Tasks as they explore the connections between navigational technology and the preeminence of seafaring powers in early modern times.

This inquiry is brought to you in Memory of John Meredith, and the Institute of Navigation.

In this background information for the teacher, you will find historical insights on early maritime navigation and the engineering challenges that existed for sailors from the 13th century to the 18th century. It focuses on: the magnetic compass’ evolution from a magic needle to a sophisticated instrument; Europe’s quest to exploit the connectivity of the world’s oceans and the role of the compass played especially as it relates to trade; the tools needed to visualize the spatial relationships between ports, such as portolan charts; the need to understand the earth as a sphere; and the accurate measurement of time and how that relates to position on the globe. In addition, the background information highlights the geography and the culture of the times.


Supporting Questions

  • STEM Interdisciplinary – Find it with GPS!: From TryEngineering, “The “Find it with GPS!” activity explores the technology that makes GPS possible, and takes a look at global variations. Students work in teams to brainstorm recommendations for applying GPS technology to meet the needs of a global society, and present their proposals to the class.”

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  • American Merchant Marine Museum
  • Mystic Seaport
  • The Intrepid