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## A Community Devoted to the Preservation and Practice of Celestial Navigation and Other Methods of Traditional Wayfinding

**Re: Magnetic Variation - Lewis and Clark**

**From:**George Huxtable

**Date:**2004 Feb 19, 00:17 +0000

Kieran Kelly described how Augustus Gregory, in Australia, calculated his magnetic variation. Then he asked how Lewis and Clark did that job in the United States. Exactly two hundred years ago, Lewis and Clark were in Winter camp, at Wood River (Camp Dubois), just across the Mississippi from where the Missouri joins, preparing to set off on the expedition-proper. To get there, they had travelled down the Ohio, then from the location of present-day Cairo, up the Miss. to that camp, a few miles above St Louis. From Cairo, they started taking astronomical sights, and I am following in their oar-strokes on paper, trying to disentangle their astronomy, and correct their many errors, as I go, 200 years behind. I hope to "arrive" at Camp Dubois well before the anniversary of the day they set off, May 14 1804. However I am presently stuck, trying to make some sense of their first lunar-distance observations, which were taken near Kaskaskia, about 50 miles below St. Louis. On that part of the journey so far, I have met with three attempts to measure variation. One was a few miles above Cairo, the others near Kaskaskia. Observation on 21 Dec 1803. On the next day after leaving Cairo, the expedition set off before dawn, and at 9:02am on their chronometer, on a sandbank, took a compass-bearing of the Sun as South 46deg 30' East (or in modern notation 133.5deg magnetic) and took an artificial-horizon doubled-altitude of the Sun, stated to be 45deg 42' 15". As with all their artificial horizon observations, the index correcton was in error, because they halved the reflected-altitude, then subtracted the sextant'sindex correction of 8' 45", rather than doing it the other way round. Also, we can now deduce that although they stated it to be a lower-linb observation, it must have been upper-limb; a common confusion with L&C. And that's where they left it. They were, presumably, unable to work out the azimuth from that Sun observation, so they could not determine the variation. All their legs of each day's travels were noted down in terms of compass direction only. Unless they discovered, further along the voyage, how to obtain azimuth information, I presume that throughout the voyage they were unable to turn their compass bearings into true ones. Perhaps this will become clearer, higher up the Missouri. It's a serious matter, because there must have been major changes in the magnetic variation over their immense voyage to the Pacific. As with so many of their observations, L&C were content to observe and record, and leave it to others to work out the necessary calculations after their return (in the event, however that didn't happen). To be fair, that was what they had been advised to do, as far as any lunar-distance observations were concerned. To be fair again, they had been provided with a document written by the astronomer Patterson (available, transcribed, at), which explained how to make certain astronomical computations, but didn't include azimuths. However, they have provided enough data for a modern computation of the variation near Cairo on 21 Nov 1803. We can make a good guess about their chronomter error from their recent equal-altitude observations, and from Sun dec. and equation-of-time for that day we can deduce that at the time of observation the Sun azimuth was 140.7deg, so the variation was 7.2deg West. The Sun altitude isn't needed if the azimuth is calculated by a modern method such as by- tan az = sin LHA / (cos LHA*sin lat - cos lat tan dec). If tan az is negative add 180deg to az. If LHA < 180deg, add another 180deg to az. This presumes that LHA is always measured Westerly, (i.e. GHA - Westerly longitude), and that North is positive for lat and dec. Then the azimuth comes out as 0 to 360deg, increasing clockwise from North. The formula above was quite unsuitable for the logarithmic methods that navigators of the 19th century were forced to use. Kieran Kelly refers to a method for finding az from its haversine. That's all very well, except at azimuths near 0deg and 180deg, when the haversine changes little with angle. An azimuth calculation is likely to be required in such circumstances, such as near meridian transit, or azimuth of Polaris, so some care is then needed, or a different formula. The measured Sun altitude wasn't necessary for finding azimuth, but it hasn't been wasted. It can be used, with the chronometer times, and the Sun equation-of-time and dec. from the almanac, to calculate a Sun altitude for an observer if he were based on Cairo. The observed altitude provides an intercept, and we can then calculate a position-line, offset from Cairo. Satisfactorily, this passes within a couple of miles of the L&C position for that observation, deduced from a recent map by Harlan and Denny of the Mississippi's banks at that date. ==================== 2 Dec 1803. Vol 2 of the Moulton edition of the Lewis & Clark journals (from which all this information was extracted) records- "...3 miles W. of Kasskassais made the following observations- By circumpherenter- Azamuth of pole Star 7deg 47' 00" at 8h 11m 45s p.m. pr chronometer." How the travellers could claim to measure a copmpass azimuth to that precision is beyond me. Discounting the 00" part of it" how did they even measure the 47'? There's a description of the "circumpherenter", which appears to be a 6-inch diameter compass (presumably equipped with sighting vanes) and adjusted using a spirit level. It would need such a vaned sighting instrument to observe the azimuth of Polaris, which would have an altitude of about 38deg. For the time of observation, we can readily compute the azimuth of Polaris to be 0deg 56', which gives a magnetic variation of 6.9deg West, not far different from the 7.2deg of 21 Dec. Again, L&C make no attempt to deduce a figure for the variation, though they could easily have made at least a rough guess by presuming Polaris to be due North. We have to remember, though, that Polaris in those days was much farther from the true Pole than it is now, 1deg 40' rather than about 0deg 40' as at present. ================ 3 Dec 1803. still at the same Kaskaskais camp. Moulton records- "Sun's magnetic Azamuth by Circumpherenter- at 9h9m59sA.M.S.43deg45'East". Decoded, this should read "at 9h 9m 59s am [the Sun's azimuth was] South 43deg 45'East", which works out as an observed azimuth (measured clockwise from North) of 136deg 15'. From an equal-altitude observation bracketing noon on that day, we can deduce that the Local Mean Time at the moment of the Sun compass observation was 9h 24m 45.1s am. From that, the Sun azimuth was 141.9deg. So the magnetic variation from this observation is 5.6deg W., or less by 1.3 deg than the measurement of the previous day of 6.9deg W. Perhaps this indicates the limit of accuracy of reading that compass, even on land. As usual, however, L&C did not deduce a variation from their observation. =============== Augustus Gregory, in Australia, and Lewis and Clark, in the USA, were in quite different leagues, as navigators. Of course, there was in interval of 50 years between them, in which period celestial navigation became much more systematic. Gregory was a real professional; L&C, in contrast, were bumbling around in the dark. The most important factor, in my view, is that L&C were given no time to learn, and to practice, the art of celestial navigation, but thrown in at the deep end with a crash course, and nobody with experience to learn from. What a difference it would have made, if the Corps of Discovery had accepted a marine-navigator into the outfit! George. ================================================================ contact George Huxtable by email at george@huxtable.u-net.com, by phone at 01865 820222 (from outside UK, +44 1865 820222), or by mail at 1 Sandy Lane, Southmoor, Abingdon, Oxon OX13 5HX, UK. ================================================================