Hands-on Canadian History: Early Canadian Explorers

Almost 500 years after the Vikings first visited, the next group of Early Canadian Explorers arrived: John Cabot, Jacques Cartier, Samuel de Champlain, Henry Hudson, Martin Frobisher…. all these men eager and curious of the “new world.”

Hands-On Canadian History: Early Canadian Explorers - Make a Compass

Ships at this time didn’t have handy electronic guiding systems to keep them on course, so how did they successfully leave from Europe and arrive in Canada? Navigational methods were combined of slightly complex and similar to things our kids are familiar with today. If you are curious about them (like what an astrolabe is or how the term “knot” became the standard for a nautical mile today), the website Heritage Newfoundland and Labrador has a great article about the navigational methods in John Cabot’s time.

One method was an early form of the compass – a tool we still use today.

Make a Compass

Materials Needed:

  • a pin (or a paperclip)
  • a strong magnet
  • a pie plate
  • water
  • a compass
  • a small chunk of cork or something small that will float as a platform (like a jug lid)

Step 1: Fill the pie plate with water. Put the cork chunk into the pan so it floats on top of the water.

Step 2: Drag the pin across the magnet, in a repeated motion. It’s important that the pin always go in the same direction so that it becomes magnetized. It will take somewhere between 20 and 50 strokes to become magnetic.

Step 3: Carefully lay the pin across the top of the cork piece and wait. It will take a minute for the pin to stop moving as it orients itself to point towards North. (Make sure the magnet you used it is set away from the dish or it will cause confusion!)explorerssq

Step 4: Compare your modern compass to the one you just made. Is it the same?

We thought this was a crazy fun activity and were so pleasantly excited when it worked.

Could you see this being a useful device when you were sailing across the ocean and wanted to make sure that you didn’t lose your direction?

If you want to learn more about these explorers and others, check out my explorers research cards!

See all 31 Days of  Hands-on Canadian History.

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