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Rare Survival -- Navigational Aid at Sea with Pricking Marks

Rare, separately-published Norie world map on a Mercator Projection, the preferred projection for tracking voyages at sea.

The present example includes the routes of several voyages, including:

  • [SS Armenian] Calcutta to Singapore, April 1860
  • Hong Kong to Singapore, Dec. 1860; continuing in Jan. 1861 through the Sunda Strait to the Cape of Good Hope to England (May 1861) [possibly a continuation of the Armenian’s voyage]
  • Hong Kong to Singapore, May
  • Edinburgh to Dublin
  • Canary Islands to Guadalupe
  • Malta to Madeira to Halifax to Bermuda in 1872 (with a half year in Halifax)

The SS Armenian sank on January 25, 1865, so it is possible this chart was used on board at some point in its time of utility. Another voyage in 1872 is also marked, suggesting that the chart changed hands or, more likely, was used across a career in several vessels.

The geography of the world in minutely recorded, showing the detail achieved by the world’s various hydrographic bodies to this date. One of the only unfinished coastlines is in Antarctica, where scattered peaks and ice islands are shown. A few points in the far north of Canada are also only vaguely drawn; the area was the major focus on many nineteenth-century voyages thanks to the ever-tantalizing search for the Northwest Passage.

As noted below the title, the map was available in separate sheets. A navigator could buy the entire world set or just a section with specific routes/areas, depending on their needs.  This set has been joined and would fold neatly, making it easy to carry on long voyages. A note below the title states:


On this Chart the Great Circle and Composite Tracks are laid down to those parts where such sailing is most practicable; against the Monsoons it is not available, excepting perhaps Steamers; & near to the Equator it becomes as Plane Sailing on the Mercator Chart.

A great circle track indicates the shortest distance between two points on a sphere, and therefore the most direct route. A composite, or modified great-circle, track consists of an initial great-circle track from the point of departure with its vertex on a limiting parallel of latitude.

Dead reckoning and pricking maps

When not navigating with celestial navigation, or in conjunction with it, mariners could estimate their position on a journey via dead reckoning. With dead reckoning, the navigator finds their position by measuring the course and distance they have sailed from a previous point. This is marked on a chart over several days, creating a running record of location at sea. Thus, effective dead reckoning depends on accurate, well-made instruments, as well as on correct calculation and recording by the mariner.

The speed of the ship can be measured using a lead and line and/or the ship’s instrumentation, depending on the ship’s type and technology. A magnetic compass will tell the heading, or direction, of the ship; the compass was invented in China and has been in use in Europe since at least 1183.

Once the speed and heading are known, and the time of travel is also known, the mariner can calculate the distance traveled in which direction. Starting from a known point, the navigator measures out his course and distance from that point on a chart, pricking/dotting the chart with the tip of a pair of dividers to mark the new position. Each day's ending position would be the starting point for the next day's course-and-distance measurement.

Dead reckoning would be only one of a variety of techniques available to the navigator in the mid-nineteenth century, when this chart was made. They would have also been able to take celestial navigation observations using intricately-made instruments, as well as consult tide, wind, and lunar distance tables. Dead reckoning would be used in addition to and in conjunction with these methods, making the routes marked here the best guess of the mariner.

SS Armenian

The SS Armenian was a British cargo steamer of 763 tons built in 1855 by Smith & Rodger, Govan, for Potter & Co., Liverpool. In 1857, the Elder Dempster Line, Liverpool, purchased the vessel.

On January 25, 1865 the ship was under the command of Captain Thomas Leamon. It was carrying 28 first-class passengers, two second class passengers and eight deck passengers with a crew of forty. The weather was foggy and in the course of the afternoon the ship stopped twice to take soundings.

Despite such precautions, at midnight, when under full steam and canvas, the Armenian ran aground on the Arklow Bank off the coast of Wicklow. A fire began in the aft deckhouse, but this was extinguished by the heavy seas. The lifeboats were successfully launched, although one was stove in. Those remaining on deck had to take the main and mizzen rigging when the ship broke in two during the night.

The SS Montague rescued two of the lifeboats. The Montague managed to save those who were still clinging to the masts. Unfortunately, a lightship crew sent to help was capsized and its four men drowned. Eight people in all were lost in the wreck.

This was not the only time the Armenian had met trouble. On August 11, 1861, the Armenian ran aground at Lagos, Nigeria on a voyage from Bonny, Africa to Liverpool; the ship was refloated with assistance from HMS Brune and HMS Prometheus of the Royal Navy. The SS Armenian also appears to have been used to transport troops from Rangoon to New Zealand in 1864. 

The owner of this chart likely served on the Armenian for a time, taking the chart with them when they served in or traveled on other vessels.


We note a few institutional examples of the map with dates between 1854 and 1871, although several appear to be incomplete sets, lacking one or more of the sheets.

The survival of a complete set with manuscript additions is very rare.

Condition Description
Dissected and laid on linen.
Margaret Schotte, Sailing School: Navigating Science and Skill, 1550-1800 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019); KAP
John William Norie Biography

John William Norie (1772 – 1843) was a publisher of nautical books held in high regard by his contemporaries. He also specialized in nautical charts and was a mathematician. Norie was born in Wapping, London, the eldest of eight children. 

Norie had an apptitude for navigation and chart making. His first work was published in 1796, The Description and Use of Hadley's Quadrant, by William Heather, a chart and instrument seller. Heather then took Norie on as a chart maker and allowed him to run a nautical academy out of Heather's premises on Leadenhall Street. He continued to work for Heather, working out of his shop. 

Norie published many works, but the most famous were A Complete Set of Nautical Tables (1803) and the Epitome of Practical Navigation (1805). Both were reissued throughout the nineteenth century, usually together. The Tables are still issued today. The Epitome became the standard work on navigation; it was so famous that authors C. S. Forester and Jack London both mention the book in their fiction. In addition to the Epitome, Norie wrote the The shipwright's vade-mecum (1822), Plates Descriptive of the Maritime Flags of All Nations (1838), and The naval gazetteer, biographer, and chronologist; new and improved (1842). He also provided pilots with charts that covered practically the entire world's seas--the famous blue-back charts.  

Norie partnered with a financial backer, George Wilson, to buy Heather's business upon Heather's death in 1813. In addition to the nautical academy and the copyright to his books, Norie prospered from the growing business, which he managed. The shop, operating under the sign of the Wooden Midshipman, was called the Navigation Warehouse. It featured in Charles Dickens' Dombey and Son.

Norie retired in 1840. He sold his shares in the business and moved to Edinburgh. He died there, at the age of 71, on Christmas Eve 1843. His company was renamed Norie & Wilson after his retirement. In 1903, the firm merged with rivals and became Imray, Laurie, Norie & Wilson. It is still in business today.