Request driving directions from your navigation system, just about anywhere on the globe, and you'll be given a turn-by-turn set of instructions from point A to point B. These systems take advantage of satellite-based Global Positioning Systems (GPS) to determine true North, day or night, in all but the most severe weather.
How did people get around before GPS receivers?
Nomadic tribes used the sun and stars to navigate. The position of the sun in the sky can be used for orientation if the general time of day, time of year, and the traveler's position relative to the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, are known.
It bears noting that, because of the Earth's axial tilt, no matter what the location of the viewer, there are only two days each year when the sun rises precisely due east. On all other days, depending on the time of year, the sun rises either north or south of true east, and sets north or south of true west.
Meanwhile, astronomy provides a method for finding direction at night, when the position and rotational direction of the stars, along an imaginary "celestial sphere," can be used to determine the North and South poles of the Earth.
There is evidence that these rudimentary navigation systems were developed independently by very diverse cultures, from Aboriginal Australians through Arab and European cultures and Native Americans. Some built sundials to determine the North, South, East, and West cardinal directions.
The origin of the four-point Cardinal Direction system itself remains unknown.
We do know that North comes from the Ancient Greek name Nereus ("ner" implying to the left of the rising sun); that East is the word for dawn; that South is derived from the root seethe (to boil), of whose root is sun, and that West derives from the roots for "red" and "evening," whose cognates are the Latin words vesper ("evening star"), and the Ancient Greek Hesperus (personification of the evening star) and Hesperides ("nymphs of evening and golden light of sunset).
Historians suggest that, in 206 B.C., the Chinese Han dynasty invented the first magnetic compass. This device was used for both navigation and divination, maintaining harmony in buildings and infrastructure. It was believed that if your home or business was facing in the "right" direction, you'd have a successful life and career. One might consider this the beginning of feng shui.
Today, children are taught phrases like "Never Eat Shredded Wheat" to remember the Cardinal Direction system. It is based on the Earth's magnetic field, which is approximately aligned with its axis of rotation. Magnetic compasses use this field to determine the cardinal directions. The north pole of the magnetic needle points towards the geographic north pole of the earth, and vice versa.