Useful Gadget

The legendary explorers carried destiny on their expedition. But they could not have fulfilled is without this unprepossessing device

The compass has a symbolic importance transcending its utility. Kim Nielsen/Smithsonian Institution

A few years ago, I spent ten days following the trail of T. E. Lawrence through the Jordanian desert, replicating the audacious English officer’s famously implausible dash to Akaba. My steed for the trip was a brand-new Land Rover, as sure-footed as a camel but far more comfortable...and air conditioned.

Beyond V-8 power, four-wheel drive and interior cooling, another handy technology made my trip infinitely easier than Lawrence’s. A GPS receiver stood reassuringly on the dash, connecting the car to a satellite that tracked me through the desert’s trackless wastes. At any moment I could see exactly where I was on the face of the planet. I could even know, within a few feet, how far above sea level I was, or—on my way down toward the Dead Sea—how far below.

From time to time during long hours of driving across the sand, my companions and I would see Bedouins on camels intersecting our route. Somehow they, too, knew exactly where they were and how to get there, in part, no doubt, because they and their fathers and their fathers’ fathers had been passing the same way at least since Petra was undeveloped real estate.

The one thing we comfortable Land Roverites shared with those hardy Bedouins was the thing we both lacked: a compass. In our case, we had a newer, alternative technology; as for the Bedouins, they simply didn’t need one. Yet it is safe to say that few inventions (leaving aside the wheel, gunpowder and other fateful technological leaps) have had such influence in creating the modern world than the compass has. And it’s hard to imagine an object more numinous with the history of America’s expansive frontier future—and thus with the formation of the nation’s spirit—than the one carried by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. The Corps of Discovery set off on May 14, 1804, embarking on their magnificent expedition to chart a vast continent still mysterious to most who lived on it. Much has been made of the contributions of Sacagawea and Native American tribes encountered along the way, and justly so. But this humble compass——protected by a four-inch-square wooden box with brass fittings and a silver band—played an unsung but incalculable role in turning the eyes both of Washington politicians and the American people toward the distant Pacific.

As they made their historic trek north and west from Camp Dubois, near St. Louis, to the rugged coast of what is now Oregon, the explorers did not always know what it was they were seeing. A brilliantly researched, lavishly illustrated book by Carolyn Gilman, Smithsonian Books), mentions Captain Lewis taking a compass reading (N.65ºW.) on a mountain he mistakenly thought was part of the Rockies. But because the expedition had the compass, and three other pocket compasses bought for the trip, its members were able to create accurate, if rudimentary, maps. And whatever other worries and challenges each day might bring, the adventurers could at least be sure where they were headed.

Long after his epic journey was over, Clark gave the compass to Capt. Robert A. McCabe, a veteran of the War of 1812 who was commandant of Fort Crawford in Wisconsin in 1825, when Clark went there to negotiate the Treaty of Prairie du Chien with the Indians. The compass remained in the McCabe family until 1933, when it was given to the Smithsonian. It is now part of the permanent display of objects associated with Thomas Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH); in December 2003, it will be loaned to the Missouri Historical Society for a traveling exhibition marking the expedition’s bicentennial.

“Of all the scientific equipment bought in Philadelphia for the journey west,” says NMAH curator Harry Rubenstein, “the Clark compass may be the only surviving object. When the expedition returned, the interest was in things brought back from the Western tribes, and in the journals.” But Rubenstein points out that because the compass has taken on a symbolic importance far beyond its actual usefulness, “it is one of the treasures of our collection.”

By the time Lewis was making his readings, the compass already had an ancient lineage. It was not so much an invented technology as a natural phenomenon discovered and applied. In China, around 200 B.C., it was observed that lodestones (iron-oxide compounds that align in a north-south direction) could be used as a directional aid. Not until the fourth century A.D. were magnetized needles used in place of lodestones, and another 600 years would pass before a compass was used to navigate a ship. When the compass finally reached Europe, probably by the Silk Road during the 12th century, it freed ships from their reliance on the stars (not always visible) and captains’ inclinations to restrict their journeys by staying within sight of coastlines. The modern age of exploration was born, and when Lewis bought the compass in Philadelphia in 1803, he was not only equipping himself with an instrument no explorer would leave home without, but with a simple, elegant tool that drew such fearless souls as Magellan, Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci to the farthest corners of the earth. In a sense, when we look at this unprepossessing, practical little device, we are seeing the American destiny.

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