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The Riddle of the Compass: The Invention That Changed the World

3.28  ·  Rating Details  ·  313 Ratings  ·  57 Reviews
Sometimes it pays to be in the right place at the right time. Certainly the mariners in Amalfi in the twelfth century were. Here the compass was first invented and used in navigation, eventually helping to make Italians the world's greatest sailors.
But the story of the compass is shrouded in mystery and myth. It begins in ancient China around the birth of Christ. A mysteri
Hardcover, 200 pages
Published August 16th 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (first published 2001)
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Dwight Penny
This time it was The Riddle Of The Compass, by Amir D. Aczel.

Have you ever read a popular history book where the author takes a simple object or idea, and weaves a thread through the course of civilization, drawing remarkable connections and weaving a web of thought, people, incidents and coincidence that leaves you marveling at human ingenuity and accomplishment, and awed by the vast scope of the author’s erudition and synthesis of vision?

Maybe it was something like Longitude, by Dava Sobel, or
May 18, 2016 Mark rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a perfectly decent short book surrounded by some really annoying framing chapters.

There is no particular "riddle" surrounding the compass--it was a valuable navigational aid invented by the Chinese and exploded in western use in the Mediterranean during the 13th century. It was not "invented" in Amalfi, although it may first have been put in a box there, and the identity of the inventor is lost to time despite there being a tradition from several centuries later attributing it to a non-
Jun 12, 2011 Charlie rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I was disappointed by the lack of meat about the subject. There was only a couple of chapters of discussion of the evidence of the origin of the compass. The rest was about historical context and about what it helped accomplish. A whole chapter was devoted to Marco Polo even though the author states that Polo did not bring the compass back from China and did not mention it in any of his writings.
Kristi Thielen
Apr 18, 2014 Kristi Thielen rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Punctuation is critical, as this slim but enjoyable book proves. It details the story of Glavio Gioia, of Amalfi, Italy who may or may not have invented the compass in the 14th century. The ancient written detail of him includes a sentence with a (mis?) placed comma: whether he actually invented the device, or introduced the already-invented device to his countrymen, is something that hangs on whether the comma should or shouldn't be there.

The people of Amalfi, naturally, insist that he was the
Jul 24, 2014 Mary rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Mary by: found it at public library
Interesting little book about how very important a now common, mundane thing like a compass was in making our world what it is today.

In today's vogue atmosphere of dismissing all things biblical as myth, I especially enjoyed Aczel's references to seafaring legends in the Bible, such as Noah and Paul.
Also liked how while Aczel did give a nod to China's having been using a compass per se long before the West, it wasn't until true seafaring communities had this world-changing tool at their disposa
Joey Robert
Sep 06, 2014 Joey Robert rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: abandoned
Interesting title. Nice cover art. Impressive author background. Below average writing level. All hype and very little substance.
Feb 02, 2015 Lee rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science-nature
I have used compasses for many years but I had never really thought about how the compass came to be or what was made possible by its invention. This book, Riddle of the Compass by Amir Aczel (2001, Harcourt, Inc.), explores the origins of the instrument and the changes made possible through its use.

The Mediterranean Sea was a crossroads of early day travel and commerce, but navigation by boat favored routes along the coastlines where familiar landmarks guided captains. Sailing was also restrict
Feb 17, 2012 Ensiform rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
The story of the magnetic compass and how it changed the world, from the ancient world to today. Aczel is known as a very readable science writer, and indeed this was an engrossing volume. There are a few bits that made me wonder if he could be trusted as an historian --- for example, he mentions that the Colossus of Rhodes straddled the harbor, which is disputed; and he gives a source for the phrase “seven seas” which cannot possibly be the original --- but on the whole he comes across as erudi ...more
Jan 14, 2012 Laurent rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
This book relates to the history of the compass and how this very important invention (Aczel says it's the most important after the wheel) changed the world (sea navigation and world exploration). The origins of the invention are not clear but Aczel does a good job listing the various mentions of the use of a compass and establishing the controversy about Flavio Giaio.

It's a good book for general knowledge and there are quite a few things I learned while reading it. Interesting reading.

Ce livre
Alex Telander
From the author of Fermat’s Last Theorem comes The Riddle of the Compass. Aczel teaches at Bentley College and actually grew up a long way away from here, on the Mediterranean where he learned the ways of navigation. Therefore it is quite fitting that this man should be writing a complete history of the compass and its crucial importance in the many events and discoveries of the past. Aczel’s main language is not English, and this is revealed in his writing which while correct and precise is sim ...more
This book made me appreciate more deeply all those gripping excellent nonfiction books that have been published in recent years, by authors such as Simon Winchester. This book seemed promising but in the end it was like reading a so-so textbook. It had no human drama, just a lot of facts which, if I were truly more interested in compasses and science, I might have enjoyed more.
May 16, 2015 CB rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, non-fiction
You know, it’s an interesting thing, the compass. These days, I doubt most people would know what to do with one if they saw one. And yet, it has irrevocably changed our world. From opening new trade routes and blowing out the edges of known maps, to influencing our very perception of direction, the profundity of its effect can’t be overstated. If Snake Plisskin had his way, and the world went dark tomorrow, every ship’s captain the world over would lose a GPS system based on the compass. After ...more
Mar 16, 2014 Ken rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Moderately interesting topic. Suffers, however, because the actual circumstances of the invention of the compass in China are obscured by history. Later adoption of the compass in Italy is similarly obscure. Still, the author has an easy writing style, and he does effectively explain in what ways the compass was, and was not, significant.
A nice little book that tells the somewhat controversial history of the compass. (The controversy being whether one man brought it to Western civilization or if it just started appearing everywhere at once.) I learned a little bit about Chinese divination with this one and why the compass caught on among some seafarers but not others. Pretty neat!
Christina Gagliano
Although the book itself is only about 150 pages, it really should have been a 10-15 page article in a magazine. The Preface, Chapter 1, and Conclusion were the best parts.
Feb 12, 2016 Lisa rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Moderately interesting, informative, not all that exciting. More about the history of the countries that were the first to use the compass and how they used it.
The book is a very basic approach to the history of the compass in the West. It's a reasonably good introduction to the Era of Exploration in Europe in spite of the inclusion of several questionable bits of history ie the Colossus of Rhodes' actual location and whether Marco Polo was real. However at the slightly under three-quarters point, the book turns into the gushing nausea about the exploroers that brought civilization to the rest of the world that is spoon fed to children in school classr ...more
Jul 19, 2015 Arend rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Interesting topic, but pedestrian and repetitive writing made it a struggle to finish this relatively short book.
Lee Belbin
Italian-based history of the development of the compass for navigation
Aug 22, 2010 Jerry rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Relatively short trade paperback that traces the invention of the compass back to China, although with considerable discussion of the claims of Amalfi (Italy) to their discovery of the compass and its useful application to navigation at sea. We found this non-fiction work fairly interesting, especially with regard to how the compass impacted the fortunes of various countries sailing the Mediterranean; and how the compass made year-round shipping a reality. Not a great work by any means, but a pl ...more
Oct 06, 2014 Karen rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Quick, interesting little book about the history of the compass.
Oct 25, 2015 Melissa rated it liked it
An interesting look at the history of the magnetic compass, as far as we can tell, and the changes in history that resulted from it's use.
John E
Jun 30, 2011 John E rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
A very simplistic book on the compass. I couldn't find the "riddle" he mentioned in his title. He spent the whold time on how the supposed Italian inventor of the compass didn't really invent it and how the Chinese who did discover the relationship of magnets to directions didn't really use it because they didn't go to sea. So the one who discovered the priciple of the compass didn't use it and it made it's way by some unknown path to Europe where it was used to find directions and thus allowed ...more
Edelhart Kempeneers
Was best ok, zij het wat oppervlakkig.
Mar 01, 2012 Ewatson rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Well written and full of nautical history, The Riddle of the Compass was a fast read for me. I didn't give it a higher rating merely because I am not overly interested in the subject matter. Still, the book is full of obscure nuggets of information, and for someone who has trouble reading a map and has a deep suspicion of the motives of her GPS (sure, she sounds sweet, but what is she REALLY up to? ), it was enlightening for me to learn a little bit about how mariners learned to navigate the wo ...more
Jun 09, 2011 Lisa rated it liked it
Shelves: science-nature
I love the books that take one topic and give you the whole history for that one thing; like Gunpowder or Vermillion. This wasn't the liveliest book, but very good history. Interesting how he points out that China had 2 major "discoveries": the magnetic compass and gunpowder, but did nothing with either (using them for fung shui and fireworks respectively). It took people with drive and ambition to turn them into useful items that changed history.
Apr 30, 2014 Emily rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I learned about how sailing was done before the compass, what compasses were used for in ancient China, and the travels of Marco Polo.
Apr 12, 2008 AC rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Another excellent history of science/math and the world that brought it about and was changed by it. As is often the case, some of his diversions, while perhaps an attempt to paint a fuller historical picture, often end up contributing little more than making the book longer than it needs to be. Still, Aczel's research and presentation are a genuinely rewarding and should not be missed.
I am not even going to give this book a star yet. It is HORRIBLE! TERRIBLE! I wish I could stop reading and burn the book in my fire place but it is a school assignment so I can't :( I am about to die reading this book because it is so boring. It is just the history of how the compass was invented. I mean, just read the preface. It is horrible! HORRIBLE!
Jan 06, 2013 Andrew rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: my-library
This was a quick, but good read. Well researched, with references given at the end, this was a fascinating tale of the dissemination of the technology which enabled advancement in navigation. I had a few minor quibbles, such as the reference to Magellan's voyage proving the world to be spherical. But, overall a great read, and I learned many new things.
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