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The Riddle of the Compass: The Invention that Changed the World Paperback – May 2, 2002


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Mariner Books; Reprint edition (May 2, 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0156007533
  • ISBN-13: 978-0156007535
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.5 x 7.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (54 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #215,240 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From School Library Journal

Adult/High School-Prior to the invention of the compass, a merchant or sailor who wished to cross a large body of water was forced to navigate by studying the winds and stars or by never sailing out of the sight of land. Long ocean voyages were impossible and even sailing the Mediterranean could be a lengthy and hazardous voyage. The compass changed all of this. Mariners could now strike out on an azimuth and have a reasonable chance of arriving at their destination. This led to the Age of Exploration and the expansion of the European kingdoms into economic empires. Yet as important as the compass is, its origins are shrouded in mystery. The small town of Amalfi, Italy, claims to be the birthplace of the inventor of the compass, but China has an even stronger case. Aczel examines the myths, legends, and facts behind the dispute and provides a logical, although not indisputable, conclusion on which nation can claim the compass as its own. He also provides a layman's overview of the development of navigation from the earliest days to the 15th century. Although the author is primarily known for his scientific books, Riddle of the Compass contains little or no jargon and a minimum of scientific terminology. A worthwhile and interesting addition.

Robert Burnham, R. E. Lee High School, Springfield, VA

Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

Despite its brevity, this book covers its topic completely. In this detailed history, Aczel (God's Equation; Bentley Coll.) takes us back in time to Amalfi, Italy, where between 1295 and 1302 the compass as we know it was developed. Aczel points out, however, that the actual discovery of materials that followed magnetic lines, or at least consistently pointed in a specific direction (south), is attributed to the Chinese in 1040. The story of the compass is also the story of navigation, which the author admirably combines. Debunking the myth that sailors followed the coastlines of countries until they met their desired location, the author describes how they navigated the open seas using the sun, stars, wind, and even the migration of birds. While this book is not a page-turner, it is an accurate account of the important historical events that lead to the compass's development. Tellingly, Aczel grew up on a ship and was navigating straits in the Mediterranean long before he could drive a car. Recommended for public as well as academic libraries whose readers want to go beyond the account generally given in an encyclopedia.
- James Olson, Northeastern Illinois Univ., Chicago
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Customer Reviews

This is a fascinating book.
Sunil Rao
He tied very nicely Dante, Venice, Marco Polo, and China in a seamless history of the invention that ties all of them together: the magnetic compass.
Catherine Jones
The time spent reading this small book would be better spent doing something else.
S. Schopp

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Peter D. Mark on January 18, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Amir Aczel's _The Riddle of the Compass_ tells a sweeping tale spanning continents and centuries. While this tale includes some discussion of the natural history of the earth's geological composition, magnetic field, and recent research showing that certain nerve fibers in fish are sensitive to this magnetic field and may play a role in their migratory behavior, the book concentrates on the human history of navigation and how the development of the compass spurred commerce, trade, and the expansion of European naval powers.
He weaves into this tale a survey of maritime navigational techniques used in antiquity by the Greeks and Egyptians. He gives an impressively well-researched survey of the references to the compass in European writings, the earliest dating to 1187 by the English Augustinian Monk Alexander Neckam. Aczel touches on a number of unusual subjects that turn out to be connected to the compass in surprising ways: the Chinese art of feng shui, ancient Chinese divination practices, Aegean archeology, including a particular Etruscan chandelier, the travels of Marco Polo, the development of cartography and nautical charts in medieval Europe. Along the way he treats the reader to a crash course in Italian history ranging from the Roman empire, the Crusades, through the rise of the city-states Amalfi, Naples, and Venice, the navigational methods employed by the great Spanish and Portuguese explorers such as Magellan, da Gama, and Columbus, and some interesting trivia such as the real meaning and origin of the phrase "to sail the seven seas" and how a possibly misplaced comma bears on the identity of the man who at one time was thought to have invented the compass, and of whom the residents of Amalfi erected a statue as a tribute.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on September 17, 2001
Format: Hardcover
If you think of objects in the category "inventions that changed the world," you might not think of the compass right off the bat, but a good case can be made for it having changed the world more than any invention since the wheel. Amir Aczel makes that case convincingly in _The Riddle of the Compass: The Invention that Changed the World_ (Harcourt), an entertaining look at an invention most of us don't use every day but which has gotten used on our behalf for centuries. He starts in Amalfi, home of Flavio Gioia, the inventor of the compass. Well, he wasn't really the inventor, as the Chinese were using it, sometime before 1040 CE, and Flavio lived around the fourteenth century. What he invented was the nautical compass box, with the familiar star on the disc with the elaborate arrow that always points north. Actually, he probably didn't even invent that. He probably didn't even exist. It is a funny story as to how he came to be regarded as the inventor of the compass, and even got his statue in the center of Amalfi, when he probably was a nonentity.
The Chinese had trade only by land and river, so there was little reason for the compass to be developed as a navigational tool. It was, essentially, a mysterious toy. They used the compass for feng shui. The practical use perfected in Amalfi was passed, when Amalfi lost its power base, to the glory and enrichment of Venice. With a compass, Venetian ships could sail during clouded winters, and could become huge transports. When other nations began using it for transoceanic trade, they put Venice into eclipse, and brought on our modern world.
Aczel covers the long era of pre-compass navigation, showing how sailors were dependent on clear skies and on the lead-weighted sounding line, which could tell the depth.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Kevin Spoering on March 5, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Amir Aczel presents us with the story of the origins of the compass, in as much detail as scholars have been able to discover. Aczel covers the use of the compass with ancient mariners and how these mariners had to rely on other navigational aids in the days before the compass, such as wind, plants, sounding lines, sea life, geography, currents, etc.. Also mentioned as well is the use of stars in determining latitude, longitude was much more difficult to determine due to the lack of accurate chronometers in early times.
Much of this volume deals with the origin of the 16 point wind rose and how it became incorporated into the modern compass, documented with events and ancient documents in China, and Italy, up to medival times and beyond. This includes discussions of the Etruscans, the cities of Amalfi and Venice, the explorer Marco Polo, all relating to the development of the compass. The second to last chapter sketches the voyages in the Great Age Of Exploration which were vastly aided by the compass, in addition to the astrolabe, a precursor of the sextant.
I believe that Amir Aczel made a very good case here that the compass is one of the pivitol inventions of humanity. Ask yourself this: if the compass had never been invented (which would have slowed down trade and the exchange of information and ideas) how many years of progress would have been lost? My wild guess is 50-100 years of lost progress, a lot.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By M. A Michaud on January 3, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Aczel describes the compass as the second most important technological innovation in history, after the wheel. He then proceeds to wander through a series of brief histories without chronological order, giving disproportionate attention to a man who may or may not have lived in Amalfi, Italy. Aczel is at his best in capsule histories of maritime activity, but is frustratingly unsystematic in his chronologies and his descriptions of how the compass is used. He mentions the Global Positioning System, but does not tell us how it works. The figure titled "how the magnetic compass works" is misleading, as it shows the axis of the Earth's magnetic field coinciding with the Earth's axis of rotation. One gets the impression of a hastily written book.
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More About the Author

Amir D. Aczel, Ph.D., is the author of 17 books on mathematics and science, some of which have been international bestsellers. Aczel has taught mathematics, statistics, and history of science at various universities, and was a visiting scholar at Harvard in 2005-2007. In 2004, Aczel was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. He is also the recipient of several teaching awards, and a grant from the American Institute of Physics to support the writing of two of his books. Aczel is currently a research fellow in the history of science at Boston University. The photo shows Amir D. Aczel inside the CMS detector of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, the international laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland, while there to research his new book, "Present at the Creation: The Story of CERN and the Large Hadron Collider"--which is about the search for the mysterious Higgs boson, the so-called "God particle," dark matter, dark energy, the mystery of antimatter, Supersymmetry, and hidden dimensions of spacetime.
See Amir D. Aczel's webpage: http://amirdaczel.com
Video on CERN and the Large Hadron Collider: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Ncx8TE2JMo


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