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    The subject of "celestial navigation"
    From: Frank Reed
    Date: 2010 Dec 18, 21:24 -0800

    When did the name become popular? Most of us call the subject "celestial navigation", a few call it "astronavigation". But both of these terms are surprisingly modern. One way to measure this is via the "Google News Archive". You can access the archive's advanced search functions here:


    Try it with the phrase "celestial navigation" and set the low year to 1850 and the high year to 2010. You can see from the graph that this phrase is essentially non-existent in news reports before the 1920s, in fact, hardly used at all before 1927. There's a new feature that Google has made available which is based on a database of phrases compiled for academic purposes. They're calling it the "Books Ngrams Viewer" and you can read about it here: http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/info. We can use it to compare the usage of the phrases "celestial navigation" versus "nautical astronomy":


    What's amazing here, to me at least, is the spike in the use of the phrase celestial navigation in the late 1930s and especially during the Second World War. Some of this is undoubtedly spurious --a sampling effect (compare with "dead reckoning"). And note that you can switch to a word database based on British English which doesn't show that big spike but does agree with the others that the phrase celestial navigation was barely used before the 1920s (and some of those indications of earlier use may be alternative usages not related to what we call celestial today).

    This seems to be another case where the rapid developments in aerial navigation fed back into the broader culture of navigation, not just in practical methodology but even in the very words used to describe the material. I noted once before that the folk etymology suggesting that "dead reckoning" really means "deduced reckoning" was popularized first among air navigators (following a single letter in a London newspaper) and then slowly made its way into the lore of marine navigators. Similarly, it appears that air navigators, or "avigators" as they were briefly known, rapidly picked up the expression "celestial navigation" and it was somewhat later adopted by marine navigators, probably greatly helped by the huge number of navigators trained during the war.

    Of course, in a subject as small as celestial navigation, individuals have a big impact. And while Lindbergh used dead reckoning to cross the Atlantic, he was soon quoted in the media talking about the importance of celestial navigation. And when Lindbergh spoke, people listened. He was a superstar of that period. Lindbergh, and his wife, too, were taught celestial navigation by none other than P.V.H. Weems, who did so much to modernize and standardize celestial navigation back then. I suspect a good case can be made that Weems was that individual who was most instrumental in giving the skill of navigating by astronomical means the name that we use today, both by having Lindbergh's ear and by his direct influence on the education of a generation of navigators.

    PS: History is not mathematics, and isolated exceptions don't break the rule. While the expression "celestial navigation" was used once in a while in some textbooks in earlier decades, it wasn't a popular term at all until the 1920s. The American Practical Navigator, for example, in the first half of the twentieth century still referred to the subject as "nautical astronomy" and also used the expression "celo-navigation" which does not seem to have become popular ever except in navigation manuals (even in the APN, this is only used in the definitions sections, not as a general term).

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