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"I think a lot of kids whose mental growth outruns their maturity gravitate to science fiction."
- Dan Simmons

Paracompass  
  A very specialized compass that makes use of local magnetic anomalies.  

Early navigation relied on several natural phenomena; the fixed pole star (or stars, when the pyramids were built) and the north magnetic pole. What can you do if a planet has no stable magnetic field, or if the planet's surface is prone to storms that disrupt the field?

The glowing tab of the Fremkit manual between them on the tent floor caught her eye. She lifted it, glanced at the flyleaf, reading: "Manual of 'The Friendly Desert,' the place full of life. Here are the ayat and burhan of Life. Believe, and al-Lat shall never burn you..."

Paul lifted the paracompass from the pack, returned it, said: "Think of all these special-application Fremen machines. They show unrivaled sophistication. Admit it. The culture that made these things betrays depths no one suspected."

From Dune, by Frank Herbert.
Published by Putnam in 1965
Additional resources -

People have made practical use of the Earth's magnetic field since ancient times, but it wasn't until 1600 that William Gilberte, personal physician to Queen Elizabeth, published his astounding De Magnete. In it, he revealed his studies with a "terrella" (a magnetized sphere); he hypothesized that the Earth was itself an immense magnet.

If you're into magnetic fields (and, in fact, we all are - just use a compass!), take a look at the very cool Earth's Magnetic Field Images, an interactive page that allows you to see field strengths at different years in the 20th century. (Courtesy of our friends at NOAA - the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.) (Special thanks to a reader who pointed me to a new URL for the old one!)

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from Dune
  More Ideas and Technology by Frank Herbert
  Tech news articles related to Dune
  Tech news articles related to works by Frank Herbert

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