The magnetic compass appeared in Europe sometime in the late ad 1100s. No doubt compasses were traded along the Silk Road.
The compass was being used in the West at the same time Venice’s sea-trade flourished. Before the compass, sea-travel was limited to the few uniformly sunny months—June through September. The rest of the year sailors stayed home because they had no way to navigate. Let’s stop for a second to appreciate what was happening. China had the compass for centuries and used it to achieve spiritual harmony—chi—when they built houses or arranged furniture and gardens. The compass slowly moved west along the Silk Road—possibly it was thought of as a novelty item.
Meanwhile back in Venice and Genoa and other Mediterranean sea-faring towns, the merchants can only make money when the sun’s shining. They’re pacing back and forth and tearing their hair out because they have these new, flexible, easily-steerable ships; they have the merchandise; they have the sailors—but their ships can’t leave port for eight months out of the year because it’s cloudy!
Then, suddenly, miraculously, the compass drops into their laps. What do they do? They seize on it! They exploit it! Now mariners can go to sea, trade and make money all year round.
You’re probably thinking, “Hold on, Manders. What about that astrolabe-thinghy you were going on about a few posts earlier—how come sea-farers didn’t use that to navigate?” I have to admit, that’s a good question. Here’s the answer: If you can’t see the Sun or the stars, you can’t navigate with an astrolabe. The compass points North even when it’s cloudy. With it, the Venetians could find their way no matter the weather.
This is what happens when you have a free market. People want to trade, make money. When a new piece of technology comes along they figure out how to exploit that technology. A similar thing happened in the last few decades with the internet. The US military invented the internet for its own communications, but the business world seized it and transformed it into the world wide web.
Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space