Chaldean shepherds, ranging trackless fields
Beneath the concave of unclouded skies
Spread like a sea, in boundless solitude,
Looked on the pole star, as on a guide
And guardian of their course, that never closed
His steadfast eye.
– William Wordsworth, “Excursion”
The human race has been finding its way from the heavens since the beginning of recorded history, if not before. Many of the stars have Arabic names because the people of the desert used the stars for direction, as did mariners. Direction-finding, wayfinding, and steering by the stars are mentioned in ancient literature; the pilot Palinurus, in Virgil’s Aeneid, in Book V, “watches all the stars that glide through silent skies: he marks Arcturus, the twin bears and the rainy Hyades, Orion armed with gold; and seeing all together in the tranquil heavens, loudly he signals from the stern” (another quote on Quotations page). Mathematical celestial navigation (sight reduction) came later; the “intercept” method, in use today, was invented by Commander Marcq de Saint-Hilaire of the French Navy in 1875.
I haven’t found a wealth of material on the Internet on celestial navigation history, though there is some. There are links suitable for students in the History section of the Celestial Navigation in the Classroom page (for example, Longitude at Sea from the Galileo Project and many others. Be sure to check them out!
Out of Print Books
The Haven-Finding Art: A History of Navigation from Odysseus to Captain Cook, by E.G. R. Taylor, published by Hollis & Carter, London, for the Institute of Navigation. There are three out-of-print books I mention in this website, and this is unfortunately one of them. However, I found it through inter-library loan and it may also be available at antiquarian and used book dealers. Here is the Table of Contents which you should read before going on with this page, as it provides a good outline of the history of navigation.
A History of Nautical Astronomy, by Charles H. Cotter, William Clowes and Sons, London. Another excellent history book, from the Babylonians to the publishing date of 1968.
Secrets of Ancient Navigation – From the Nova Series on PBS
Seaman’s Secrets A fascinating nautical manual written by John Davis in 1595.
“Divided into Two Parts, Wherein is Taught the three kindes of sayling, Horizontal, Paradoxal, and Sayling upon a Great Circle…with a Regiment newly Calculated for the finding of the Declination of the Sun, and many other most necessary Rules and Instruments not hereforte set by any.”
There is an excellent book, Navigation in the Information Age, at hawaii-nation.org. Chapter Four covers the western view of mapping and space through the renaissance before moving on to Hawaiian navigation. This site is also listed on the Wayfinding page.
The Foundation for the Promotion of the Art of Navigation has been taken over by Starpath; they have an index of past articles.
Peter Ifland’s History of the Sextant has some truly beautiful pictures.
NEW: Peter Ifland and Michel Vanvaerenbergh – Line of Position Navigation: Sumner and Saint Hilaire the Two Pillars of Modern Celestial Navigation – historical account of the development of line of position techniques from the 1840s to the 20th century.