Modern navigation stands on the shoulders of those who came before us. Ancient astronomers passed down their knowledge of the celestial bodies. Artists and cartographers produced charts of the oceans and new lands. Mathematicians and scientists invented tools and techniques so that mariners might find their way. Adventurers bravely took this knowledge to sea discovering and charting new worlds. And as navigation advanced, so did civilization.
Early mariners were coastal pilots, hugging the coastline in order to find their way. They used charts and known landmarks as navigational aids. They used the lead line or fathometer to obtain depth readings called soundings. And they had a few simple tools to measure distance and bearing to safely navigate through inland and near shore waters.
By the 16th century, the "Age of Exploration," advances in celestial navigation enabled mariners to measure the angle of the sun and stars to determine their latitude (their location on the Earth north to south) but not their longitude (their position west to east). These early explorers could never truly know their precise position at sea.
Dead reckoning, often used as a last resort today, was one of the few navigation techniques available for ancient mariners. This method requires the navigator to factor in the compass direction, speed, currents, and other information to track and determine the vessel's location. It also requires meticulous observations and careful record keeping on a chart. Errors in a log could often result in a prolonged voyage at best - and at worst... disaster.
New technological developments such as the marine sextant and the sea-going clock in the 18th century made ocean passages routine. The advent of airplanes in the early 20th century sparked a new interest and energy in the field of navigation. Calculations now had to be made not for the speed of ships, but for the speed of airplanes.
Captain Philip Van Horn Weems was instrumental in revolutionizing modern navigation and was an active participant in navigational advances from the time of his sailing cruise aboard the USS Hartford in 1909 to his patent in 1961 of the space navigation sphere.
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The advent of computers, satellites, the Global Positioning System, and electronic navigation has revolutionized the ways in which navigators ply the oceans, fly the skies, and explore space in the 21st century. Navigators at sea today are more likely to remain below deck at a computerized navigation station than on deck observing the stars.
Everyone who travels on land, sea, or in the air and in space should appreciate understand, and perhaps even practice the "art" of navigation using the methods of old to gain an appreciation of the work of those who came before us.
The Genius of Captain Weems
BEFORE THERE WAS GPS
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The Navigation Genius of Captain Philip Van Horn Weems
1889 – 1979
In the 21st century we take knowing exactly where we are and where we are going (navigation) for granted. An inexpensive little black box gives us our latitude and longitude in a matter of seconds. But before the invention of the satellite Global Positioning System, and the GPS receiver, navigation was both an art and a science, and quite complex.
Captain Philip Van Horn Weems, the "Grand Old Man of Navigation," is renowned as a pioneer in the field. He modernized navigation by simplifying techniques; invented and adapted new, time saving methods; and most significantly, shared this knowledge through the tireless teaching of his discoveries and insights. His pupils were naval officers and adventurers. His advancements, which began during his career as a naval officer, now stretch across all types of navigation - from maritime to aeronautic, from underwater to outer space.
Most tools developed by Weems were developed in an era before computers as we know them today. The tools developed by Weems simplified and automated the problems of navigation so that anyone with a high school education could master basic celestial navigation. Delve into navigating the old-fashioned way and explore for yourself how mariners of the past paved the way for navigation today. Captain Weems lived in Annapolis as a Naval Academy midshipman in the early 1900s and again from the 1930s to his death in 1979. The company he founded lives on today as Weems & Plath , located at 38°58.16' N 076°28.68' W, that is, 214 Eastern Avenue, in the Eastport neighborhood of Annapolis, just blocks from the Annapolis Maritime Museum.
In 2003, Captain Weems was inducted posthumously into the Maritime Hall of Fame in Annapolis. Through his accomplishments and inventions, we invite you to explore his contributions to the history of navigation.