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I am wondering about who can reasonably claim to independently have developed navigating oceans. It is quite clear that the Iberians had the technology around 1500; and that the proto-Polynesians had it during their migrations. That gives at least two independent developments.

It is less clear to me whether the Vikings should count as having ocean navigation (they made it to Greenland and Vinland, but would their technology have worked for other ocean crossing?), and if they do count, whether their technology or accomplishments had any impact on the later Iberian developments.

Tentatively, I would suppose that the maritime cultures in South-East Asia predating the (proto)-Polynesians were sticking close to the coasts, but I am not very knowlegable in the history of this area. For the Chinese Treasure Fleet of Zheng He, I am again neither sure of whether they had "proper" ocean navigation, nor to what extent there could have been an impact from the Austronesians on their technology if they had it.

Definition: My suggested definition of ocean navigation would be the ability to navigate across 1000km of open water sufficiently reliable to sustain trade routes. That's the rough ballpark of what I mean with the term, but I'd be open to suggestions for better definitions.

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  • The Romans also navigated the Indian Ocean: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Periplus_of_the_Erythraean_Sea and IIRC the Atlantic, with ocean voyages to Britain. Earlier Mediterranean peoples did so as well, travelling to Cornwall for tin.
    – jamesqf
    Dec 3 '19 at 17:02
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    Please define what you mean by "ocean navigation", as the question is meaningless without such. Dec 3 '19 at 21:11
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    I'm familiar with this topic but I still don't understand what you're after, nor the rationale unless you're trying to establish some cultural exceptionalism. Btw, Polynesians are Austronesian-speakers, and "nautical miles" is the unit of measure. 1000 nautical miles without cross-checks probably didn't happen till 19th c. The longest voyage by Austronesians through Indian Ocean is only still at about 800 NM. Your bar could be set too high. It all depends on what you're trying to research.
    – J Asia
    Dec 4 '19 at 5:10
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    There is a profound difference between going out into the ocean directly away from land and traveling long distances and traveling similar distances while hugging the coast. I believe that the Polynesians and the Vikings are the only ones who habitually did the former prior to the 15th century. Dec 4 '19 at 21:18
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I would think the vikings would count because their navigation was based on the sun and stars just like those who followed them. The Vikings not only crossed the North Atlantic but they also went into the Mediterranean and Black Sea. And while they never discovered a sea route to India or China that should not detract from their accomplishments because no other contemporary Europeans did either. Not until the Renaissance (1498) when Vasco da Gama did so.

Question:
I am wondering about who can reasonably claim to independently have developed navigating oceans

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I would argue for 18th Century British clockmaker John Harrison. Nobody before him really could navigate the oceans. All of them only had half the picture. Even in the early 18th century the only accurate way to navigate the oceans was to follow the coastline. One can determine latitude from the sun and stars but not longitude. For longitude even in the early 18th century sailors still had to use "dead reckoning". You guessed wrong terrible things could happen.

Scilly naval disaster of 1707
the loss of four warships of a Royal Navy fleet off the Isles of Scilly in severe weather on 22 October 1707. Between 1,400 and 2,000 sailors lost their lives aboard the wrecked vessels, making the incident one of the worst maritime disasters in British naval history...... .
The disastrous wrecking of a Royal Navy fleet in home waters brought great consternation to the nation. The main cause of the catastrophe has often been portrayed as the navigators' inability to accurately calculate their longitude.7 Clearly, something better than dead reckoning was needed to find a way through dangerous waters. As transoceanic travel grew in significance, so did the importance of reliable navigation. This eventually led to the Longitude Act in 1714,

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The longitude problem: how we figured out where we are
Robert Mayhew of the University of Bristol tells of times when longitude went wrong. “A battle raged between Spain and Portugal in the 16th century over the Maluku Islands,” he said. A treaty between Spain and Portugal used a line of longitude in the Atlantic to divide the colonies between them. But it was unclear where the line fell on the other side of the world, so Spain and Portugal both claimed that the Maluku Islands were on “their side”. “Once you can plot longitude reliably, these sorts of disputes become capable of resolution,” Mayhew said.

There were many instances where explorers “discovered” the same island multiple times, particularly in the Pacific region, where 18th century navigators were obsessed with plotting the islands reliably.

“Optical illusions like heat haze led to land being claimed where none existed. One example of this could be Pepys Island, named after the famous English diarist. As far as we can tell, there’s no land anywhere near its reported location, so it probably doesn’t exist.”

Many had tried to solve this problem.

  • Philip II of Spain offered a reward for a solution in 1567
  • Philip III in 1598 offered 6,000 ducats and a pension,
  • the States General of the Netherlands offered 10,000 florins in the early 1600s

After many maritime disasters due to navigational errors, in 1714 the British Parliament set up their own contest to incentivize the development of a way to determine longitude at sea. The Longitude Act of 1714.

John Harrison was the one who solved the problem. He was a wooden clock maker obsessed with his craft and the accuracy of his clocks. He theorized that if he could accurately measure time on-board a ship at sea the calculation of Longitude would be trivial. On November 18th 1761, after decades of trial and error and multiple prototypes, John Harrison successfully demonstrated a pocket watch, his H4, (4th of 5 models built by Harrison to solve the problem) Harrison's H4 demonstrated accuracy in determining longitude on an ocean voyage between the UK and Kingston Jamaica off by only 1.25 minutes, approximately one nautical mile.

While Harrison was forced to demonstrate his achievement in 4 successful sea trials he never received the prize (£20,000). In 1773 he was awarded £8,750 from Parliament for his achievements. This is largely seen as a **bias by the judges of the contest, and does not tarnish Harrison's accomplishment as his chronological based navigation method became the most widely used and accurate navigation technique into the modern era, until it was replaced by satellite navigation(gps).. and even today marine navigators regularly check their gps positioning with sexton and chronological navigation.

** Harrison was primarily a craftsman and the people judging his achievement were scientists. They just didn't respect his breeding, lack of education, lack of scientific training and really dismissed his accomplishments. The Scientific community backed a second method for determining longitude based purely on mathematics and the stars (angle between moon and stars). It was believed Harrison's technology approach was not as reliable as a purely scientific approach and thus not a complete solution worthy of the prize. The British Longitude prize was never awarded.


From: Comments

While I agree with the argument put forth that John Harrison is a good contestant for "individual with the greatest contribution to ocean navigation", certainly the British had reached "it works ok enough" ocean navigation well before his time, and moreover, the British don't have a claim to independent development of that technology, as they had too close contact with the Iberians who managed before. – Arno

@Arno, Thank you for the comment. The British ocean navigation didn't work "well enough". That's why they commissioned the contest and maintained a board of their scientists on the problem for more than six decades. A global concern like the British Empire in the eighteen century required more certainty than a best guess; as the Spanish Empire had ascertained when they were faced with the same problem 100 years earlier. This was a huge problem ocean going civilizations had struggled with for centuries.

From Pieter Gerkens: Please correct "You guessed wrong and you could end up 100's of miles from your destination and could not tell if you were 100 miles north or south of your destination without sighting a land mark or asking directions." as a simple sextant was sufficient to determine latitude much more accurately than that, by orders of magnitude.

Thank You. Removed that sentence. FYI first sextant was a result of the Longitude act of 1714. Commissioned by the Longitude board and developed by John Bird in 1759. Based on observations made by Thomas Campbell during sea trials of John_Hadley reflecting octant. This first sextant was heavy, made of brass, and needed to be braced on a clip attached to one's belt to use. More importantly was only part of the solution for telling time based on moon and star calculations which was key to finding longitude using a sextant. The astronomical charts also required to make longitude calculations likewise weren’t available until the mid 18th century also a result of the longitude act.

From @Mark Even an early mariner's astrolabe marked in degrees could get better than 75 miles north/south, and a sextant in the hands of a skilled user could get within a few hundred meters. It was only east-west location that has historically been a problem.

You're right, should've been east-west. Changed the blurb to give a historical event which inspired the Longitude Act. Thank You.

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  • While I agree with the argument put forth that John Harrison is a good contestant for "individual with the greatest contribution to ocean navigation", certainly the British had reached "it works ok enough" ocean navigation well before his time, and moreover, the British don't have a claim to independent development of that technology, as they had too close contact with the Iberians who managed before.
    – Arno
    Dec 3 '19 at 18:05
  • Please correct "You guessed wrong and you could end up 100's of miles from your destination and could not tell if you were 100 miles north or south of your destination without sighting a land mark or asking directions." as a simple sextant was sufficient to determine latitude much more accurately than that, by orders of magnitude. Dec 3 '19 at 21:10
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    Even an early mariner's astrolabe marked in degrees could get better than 75 miles north/south, and a sextant in the hands of a skilled user could get within a few hundred meters. It was only east-west location that has historically been a problem.
    – Mark
    Dec 4 '19 at 2:16
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    The OP's question uses >1000 km of open ocean. Given that Iceland is >1000 km from basically everything, that should be enough to qualify the vikings. Dec 4 '19 at 21:14
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The Arabs developed it independently. By the time Vasco da Gamma arrived to the Indian Ocean, it was intensively navigated by the Arabs and other Muslim peoples. They "discovered" Madagascar and Indonesia, and had regular sea trade with India.

But it is not completely clear how to define "ocean navigation". (See the example of the Norsmen discussed in the comments). Another example is settling of Australia by the humans. We know it happened more than 50,000 years ago, but have no idea how this could happen. One can argue that this was not true "ocean navigation" but an island-to-island hopping. But navigation of the Polynesians was more or less like this as well. What kind of distances away from any shores or islands qualify as "ocean navigation"?

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  • The Arabs were definitely doing it. But there had been ocean-borne trade between India and the Near East since the time of the Indus Valley Civilization, before the "Arabs" even existed as a people. Its possible it was all shore hopping for those thousands of years, but I doubt it.
    – T.E.D.
    Dec 3 '19 at 21:55
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    "Ocean navigation" generally means navigating without landmarks. Ancient Greek shore-hugging or southeast Asian island-hopping doesn't count.
    – Mark
    Dec 4 '19 at 3:21
  • It's questionable whether the Arabs developed navigation of the Indian ocean independently, or just followed the routes that had been used by the Greeks & Romans before them. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Periplus_of_the_Erythraean_Sea
    – jamesqf
    Dec 4 '19 at 6:12
  • @Mark: We could also ask whether those Greeks & Romans were actually capable of ocean navigation, and it was just more profitable for traders to go along the shore from port to port.
    – jamesqf
    Dec 4 '19 at 6:15
  • @Mark: how many days without landmarks? Crossing the Black sea in N to S in the middle takes more than one day without landmarks. Is this counted as "ocean navigation"?
    – Alex
    Dec 5 '19 at 12:30

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