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Market Report

Find out what sort of prices you can expect with the market reports.


Read more about these popular compasses in the article on WWI Pocket watch compasses.


Intrigued to know what all that compass jargon means.

Singer's Patent

In my view Singer's Patent was an iconic design of the 1860's.  So who was Singer?


World War 1 prismatic compasses prove very popular at auction, but what were their origins?


Old Italian compass

How compasses were a few hundred years ago

Book Reviews

Books on compasses that are invaluable reference material

Useful Links

And finally some useful links to compass sites around the world.

Singers Patent - an iconic design of the 1860's

  Singers Patent must be considered a significant invention in the history of the compass during the last 150 years.  The principles of it's design were so influential that they lasted over fifty years until the First World War . 

There is a misunderstanding amongst some collectors and dealers who believe the patent was the work Isaac Merritt Singer. He was the man responsible for improving the sewing machine.  Whilst he was a talented and prolific patentee he will have to make do with his other numerous inventions and patents, but he had nothing to do with the Singer's Patent.

Singer's Patent is attributable to Samuel Berry Singer.


  So who was Samuel Berry Singer?

Little is know about Samuel Berry Singer.  He was born in 1796, married in Portsea, England 1843 at which time he was a Mariner.  By the time he registered his patent in 1861 he was living in Southsea, England and was a Master Mariner, aged 65.  An article in the Times  of October 1861[1] refers to the fact that Samuel invented his design some eight years earlier, primarily it seems, for use whilst hunting.  It must be appreciated that the issues faced by compass designers of the day were significant.  In 1861 there was no luminous paint so to read the compass in the dark was difficult, especially if you did not want to attract attention to your location, either because you were stalking some prey or were involved in a military manoeuvre where you could alert the enemy to your position.  It seems reasonable to assume that Samuel Berry Singer approached these problems as a serious user of the compass, and not as is often the case, as an instrument maker or manufacturer.  This explains why his patent solely addresses the issues of the compass design and in my view explains why the design has enjoyed such longevity.  It is a users solution to a very practical design issue and as such must be considered an iconic design of its time.  A patent in 1862 [2] by an American instrument maker, H W Hunter,  shows a different approach.  Whilst the compass rose design is remarkably similar to Singers, Hunter also addresses issues to do with the physical construction of a pocket compass. I will however leave you to make your own mind up if Hunter copied Singers' design!

Singers's design was trialled by both Trinity House and the Royal Navy for use at night,  however little has been found out about these trials to date.  These trials need to be put in context.  Compass technology was evolving rapidly at this time as more and more ships were made of iron and steel.  Also, the illumination of the compass card at night was frequently by candle or oil lamp and in rough weather this was not reliable.  So as you can imagine, anything that addressed the issues of reading the compass in the dark or poor light would be viewed as an important breakthrough.

  Singers patent design

Singer's Patent

This is the design as registered by Samuel Berry Singer in his patent that was filed on 11th June 1861[3].  It can be seen that the original design did not include the Lyre design or the words Singers Patent seen in all early examples of the Singers Patent card.  These design features were obvious as early as November 1861 in an article from The Illustrated London News [4] where both the Lyre and the words Singers Patent are included.  Latter examples, such as those during WWI only included the Lyre, presumably because the patent had expired and manufacturers were copying the design.

There are sales references in the Negretti & Zambra catalogue of 1864 to the compass design which include the various articles  listed above as well as a testimonial from Dr David Livingston, the explorer.


  Singers patent compass  Singer's Patent in use

In this example of a Singer's Patent compass we can see that the star at the North cardinal is present but we can also see a Lyre, the words Singer's Patent and a hand written number below the jewelled cap.  The number was probably a means of tracking the cards made under Singers 1861 patent.  The numbers that have so far been tracked down in private collections range between #14 to #25928.  I would therefore date any numbered Singers Patent compass between 1861 and 1868.

However the Lyre is much more interesting and we have to assume that it was introduced as some sort of trade mark, since it was not in the original design.   Thanks to the efforts of James of the Compass Crew, we now consider that the significance of the Lyre design has its origins in the use of bright stars for navigation. 

Vega (or Lyra) is known as the "Harp Star" and Mariners consider Vega the "Lucky Star".  During the mid to late 1800's there were about 30 Navigation Stars and 7 of those were Primary stars.  Vega is one of the Primary Navigation Stars.  This appears to be the symbolism used on the Singer's Patent design that persisted until WWI.

 If you have a Singers Patent compass in your collection and are prepared to let me have the details please contact me.


  Singers patent WWI design Singers Design Legacy!

What happened to Samuel Berry Singer is now revealed in Compass Chronicles and it's quite clear that he did not make his fortune from his compass.  There can be no doubt that since patents in 1861 only lasted 14 years were expensive to register, even by modern standards, his design was enduring and widely copied.  His original Patent was only valid for seven years until 1868 when the stamp duty was not paid for the renewal of the patent.  This meant the patent lapsed in 1868.

Appreciate the simplicity of this design and you will understand why it was still in regular use in the early part of World War I as illustrated in this picture of a 1916 Mark V compass.  1916/17 marks the end of the Singer's Patent design era however, occasionally you will find compasses, as late as the 1960's where the basic design has been copied in some form.  His iconic design was even incorporated into a Victorian broach.

My own theory is that the design was displaced slowly over a period of a few years from about 1906 to 1916 by the introduction of Radium paint that allowed compass cards to be read in the dark.  Radium was an incredibly widely used compound during this period and used for such a wide range of applications from instruments to medical compounds. 



[1] The Times Saturday 5th October 1861 Page 12, Military and Naval Intelligence.

[2] US Patent Nos 35156, 6th May 1862.

[3] GB Patent 1496, 11th June 1861.

[4] The Illustrated London News, No 1119 Vol XXXIX, Saturday November 30 1861, Page 553, Singer's Night Compass.

[5] Compass Chronicles, Kornelia Takacs, ISBN : 978-0-7643-3396-5, May 2010




There are many people who deserve a mention in this article, since without their assistance and diligence I doubt I would have got this far.  I would like to particularly thank Melvyn Rees at the Patent Office for locating Singers Patent, Adam Perkins at Cambridge University for making manuscripts of the late Sir George Airy of The Royal Greenwich Observatory available to me, Peter O'Reilly at the British Library for pointing me in the right direction and finally the other members of the Compass Crew (Alan, James and Kornelia) - without their assistance I would certainly have been unable to write these findings today.


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