Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Compass

Finally caught up with my reading, gradually working through the magazines that had piled up over the past months. Only a bit over a year and several months late, and deep in the pile, I eventually got to the November 2013 issue of Smithsonian and there, staring out from the page was a photograph of a compass that looked amazingly familiar.

It was a photograph of the compass Meriwether Lewis carried on the Corps of Discovery (Lewis and Clark) expedition that President Thomas Jefferson sent west to map and explore the Louisiana Purchase. The journey to the Pacific Ocean and back lasted from May 1804 until September 1806.
The reason the compass looked familiar is that in 1960 I purchased a Model 5600 “Forestry Compass” made by Kuffel & Esser Company. At the time it was the premier hand-held compass used by foresters, geologists and surveyors.

The compasses aren’t identical: Lewis’ compass was made with a wooden case, mine with an aluminum case; Lewis’ compass has a set of sights in the form of two slotted posts that are aligned to take a bearing, mine has a sight line milled in the lid – but they’re remarkably alike given the 150 year difference in their ages.

Compasses are rapidly becoming obsolete as professionals as well as hikers, hunters and other outdoor folks adopt electronic Global Positioning System (GPS) devices that can determine their location to within a few feet anywhere on the earth. GPS receivers are now even in cars, cameras and cellphones – some will actually speak to you.

However, in reading the reports of rescues it quickly becomes apparent that relying on GPS is fraught with potential problems – from people who, following the directions given by their vehicle’s GPS, use roads that are closed in winter and get marooned in deep snow; to hikers relying on a GPS receiver until its batteries give out and they’re totally lost. If a GPS receiver can’t “see” enough satellites it won’t give a reliable reading – think about beneath dense foliage or in deep narrow valleys – and if water gets inside …

There’s a lot to be said for an old-fashioned compass and map – no batteries to fail; they work beneath dense foliage and in deep valleys; and no annoying computer-generated voice – this old codger will keep using his old compass.


The Furry Gnome said...

I agree. GPS has it's uses, but a good old map and compass is better if I have to choose!

Jane said...

Cool! How many people actually know how to use a compass these days? I remember having my kids learn about it as part of our homeschool science years ago.