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“Can you see anything?” Henry Carter was asked in 1923 as he peered into King Tutankhamun’s tomb. “Yes,” he replied, “wonderful things.” This column explores other wonderful things—intriguing artifacts or technologies that give insight into coastal cultures.
On a bronze plate, the little metal spoon balances exquisitely on its bowl. Each time it’s tossed or spun, it comes to rest with its neck aiming south. This is a replica of the aptly named south pointing spoon, thought to be the first magnetized object ever used to tell direction. And it was the crucial precursor to the magnetic compass, one of the most important inventions in maritime history.
The spoon’s first mention is in Lun Heng, a book of essays on science, myth, and literature written during China’s Han dynasty around 60 CE. The description is straightforward: “When the south pointing spoon is thrown upon the ground,” writes author Wang Chong, “it comes to rest pointing at the south.” Chong also describes a “heaven plate” on which the spoon could be thrown. The plate was marked with eight trigrams according to the divination manual, the I Ching.
The spoon and plate, sometimes called a sinan, may have been used for orienteering by jade miners in the wilderness. (They might have even invented it, since making a ladle from lodestone—a naturally magnetic mineral—would have required skill with stone and metal.) People in more quotidian surroundings used it for telling direction for divination and for geomancy.
By the 11th century, people had noticed that needles rubbed with lodestone also aligned north-south and were suspending magnetized needles on silk string or floating them in bowls of water. When mariners adopted these rudimentary compasses, it helped turn China into a global sea power.
Maritime trade helped spread the technology to the rest of the world. China had a robust navy by the 12th century and Chinese sailors traded with people in places as distant as Saudi Arabia and Europe. The needles gave Chinese sailors a huge advantage at sea: their sailing manuals were even called needle guides. Other navigation methods were less exact. Celestial reckoning, for instance, was problematic in the dark or in bad weather, and written or oral descriptions of routes were easy to misinterpret. “The pilots steer by the stars at night, and in the daytime by the sun; in dark weather, they look at the south pointing needle,” writes historian Zhu Yu in the early 12th century.
Around the same time, the needles began to be mounted on pivots. (One text describes Chinese mariners balancing a small metal turtle containing a magnetized needle on a bamboo pin.) By the 12th century, sailors in Europe had adopted these needle compasses and were also mounting them on pivots.
You can buy replicas of the south pointing spoon today, but this example was made in 1999 by Susan Silverman, then a student at Smith College in Massachusetts, for a course on ancient inventions. Referencing Chinese historian Joseph Needham and Wang Chong’s descriptions, Silverman had to make some alterations. “I had a lot of trouble locating a piece of magnetite large enough to make the spoon,” she writes in a summary of her project. Instead she hammered this 18-centimeter-long spoon out of heated sheet steel, then magnetized it in the college’s magnetics lab. She etched the markings into a 25-square-centimeter brass plate with her daughter’s jewelry-making tools and painted the symbols in nail polish.
Silverman is now a professor of fine arts at Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire and still has this south pointing spoon in her home, though she says the brass plate has now oxidized and the spoon has long lost its artificially induced magnetism. “It was a really fun thing to make,” she says.
As for why the rudimentary compass was in the shape of a spoon, Silverman says the original diviners may have made the ladle shape to mimic the Big Dipper. In that constellation, the two stars at the end of the “bowl” point to the North Star. And since the spoon’s neck pointed south, that meant its bowl pointed north—just like the Big Dipper. That may be the biggest south pointing spoon of all, still shining in the sky.