South-pointing Chariot

The south-pointing chariot (or carriage) was an ancient Chinese two-wheeled vehicle that carried a movable pointer to indicate the south, no matter how the chariot turned. Usually, the pointer took the form of a doll or figure with an outstretched arm. The chariot was supposedly used as a compass for navigation, and may also have had other purposes.

There are legends of earlier south-pointing chariots, but the first reliably documented one was created by Ma Jun (c. 200–265 CE) of Cao Wei during the Three Kingdoms, about eight hundred years before the first navigational use of a magnetic compass. No ancient chariots still exist, but many extant ancient Chinese texts mention them, saying they were used intermittently until about 1300 CE. Some include information about their inner components and workings.

There were probably several types of south-pointing chariot which worked differently. In most or all of them, the rotating road wheels mechanically operated a geared mechanism to keep the pointer aimed correctly. The mechanism had no magnets and did not automatically detect which direction was south. The pointer was aimed southward by hand at the start of a journey, then, whenever the chariot turned, the mechanism rotated the pointer relative to the body of the chariot to counteract the turn and keep the pointer aiming in a constant direction, to the south. Thus the mechanism did a kind of directional dead reckoning, which is inherently prone to cumulative errors and uncertainties. Some chariots' mechanisms may have had differential gears. If so, it was probably the first use of differentials anywhere in the world.

Read more about South-pointing ChariotChariots Without Differential Gears, Necessity of Non-mechanical Orientation, Where They Can Be Seen

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South-pointing Chariot - Where They Can Be Seen
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