Although the first unequivocal evidence for Chinese compasses is tenth century, predating European compasses by only a few centuries, Needham demonstrates that magnetic needles are much older and that compasses probably are as well. In any event an east-west transmission is likely, possibly overland rather than by sea. Chinese knowledge of magnetism was connected with geomancy and divination and, reaching back further in history, with the game of chess.
Turning to nautical technology, Needham describes in detail some typical Chinese ships, illustrating characteristic features such as flat bottoms, watertight bulkheads, and square prows and stems; in a general typology of boats, he places them as descendants of the raft. This is followed by a nautical history of China, from earliest antiquity down to the Ching, drawing on evidence from archaeology and literature.
Chapter three, covering Chinese voyages of exploration, probably has the broadest appeal. Needham concentrates on the Indian Ocean and the great Ming treasure fleets, which reached as far as southern Africa (half a century before the Portuguese), but also considers the possibility of voyages to Australia and the Americas.
Three chapters cover navigation, propulsion, and steering. Needham describes navigational theory and practice (astronomy, mathematics, instrumentation, and mapping), the fore-and-aft rig, oars and the self-feathering "propeller", the balanced axial rudder, and other key technologies. A final chapter deals with miscellaneous topics: anchors and lighthouses, diving (pearling), rams and grappling irons, and the long-standing preference of the Chinese for projectile weapons (and defensive armouring) afloat.
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