Items Used by 15th Century Explorers

Written by brian gabriel
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Items Used by 15th Century Explorers
15th century explorers relied on many different navigational items. (Jupiterimages/Pixland/Getty Images)

The 15th century was a Golden Age of European exploration, a time when ambitious men spent their lives discovering new sea routes and new lands. In 1418, Prince Henry the Navigator set up a school dedicated to studying exploration. The school sent ships out to sea and filled the imaginations of future explorers. This was the age built for exploration of the sea, with governments eagerly seeking new trading routes and lands, three-mast ships that could travel great distances, the printing press to keep navigators informed about rapid knowledge developments, and many other tools of exploration.

Magnetic Compass

Europeans sailing into the Atlantic Ocean used a magnetic compass. The Earth has two magnetic poles near the North and South poles. The magnetic field causes a magnetised needle to go into a north-south position. The magnetic compasses used by 15th century explorers, however, were somewhat inaccurate because the needle of the magnetic compass did not point to the Earth's true north. The angle the needle made with Earth's true north varied from place to place, skewing the accuracy of the compass. These problems were studied in great depth by the 17th century astronomer Edmund Halley.


Geographical information was difficult to come by because it was jealously guarded by states that wanted to continue their trading monopolies. There were coastal maps of Europe and the Mediterranean in the 15th century, called "portolan charts." However, these maps were notoriously inaccurate and new knowledge about seacoasts was coming in all the time. Every explorer had to become a chart-maker and marine journalist to keep up with the latest knowledge of the coastlines, according to historian Daniel Boorstin.


Almanacs were published annually in the 15th century. These publications forecasted the exact positions of the sun and moon, and certain stars that were important for navigation. Almanacs were exhaustive, predicting where each celestial body would be every hour for years to come.

Celestial Observation Tools

The Arabs introduced two important tools to the European explorers for celestial observation, which they used to navigate by the night sky. Astrolabes were invented in ancient Greece around 225 B.C. and used to calculate the positions of various celestial bodies and determine latitudes. Astrolabe manufacturing in the 15th century was done primarily in the German cities of Augsburg and Nuremburg. The Arabs also introduced Europeans to quadrants, a tool the ancient Greek Ptolemy believed was an improvement to astrolabes. Quadrants were used for measuring distances and time; they could measure angles up to 90 degrees.

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