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Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

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Most Helpful Favorable Review

31 out of 36 people found this review helpful.

Longitude

Longitude by Dava Sobel is the story of English clockmaker John Harrison who competed for a prize from the English government to discover an effective way to track longitude. He had no formal education but learned how to read from his father. His father taught him many ...
Longitude by Dava Sobel is the story of English clockmaker John Harrison who competed for a prize from the English government to discover an effective way to track longitude. He had no formal education but learned how to read from his father. His father taught him many trades, and with these trades and a love of reading, Harrison made a clock just by studying a textbook. Without being able to calculate longitude ships never really knew where they were or were going on long voyages, thus causing many wrecks and deaths of sailors. There was thought there might be a celestial solution. The problem with using the stars was that you had to be extremely skilled as an astronomer and have a great knowledge of the stars movement to figure location. With nobody being able to solve the longitude problem the British government set up a prize committee in 1714 called the Board of Longitude to help inventors financially so they could try and find a way to calculate longitude. Harrison finishes four sea clocks, each one better than the last, but the Board of Longitude will not award him the prize. The Board of Longitude favors astronomer Nevil Maskelyne and his lunar distance method theory, which attempts to use the moon to track longitude. He never gets the prize from the Board of Longitude who continued to use any means necessary to not allow him to win. Harrison's clock was finally recognized by King George III and Parliament who, despite the Board of Longitude putting him down, awarded Harrison with the money that was rightfully his. Clock making became a huge business after Harrison's success and the mass production of his sea clock became a priority. I'm not a big reader, to say the least, but honestly, I really enjoyed the read. These days it's just expected that our cruise ship or airplane will get to exactly where it's going. Honestly, I have never thought twice about it. I never realized what a big impact not being able to calculate longitude had on the sailing world. Ships would wreck all the time simply because they couldn't calculate where they were. The book had plot, and a good storyline, and a good climax, and a happy ending. I though I was reading fiction. You are drawn in by the main character's story and you feel for him in his struggle to win the prize, and all the obstacles he faces in creating his longitude clock and all of the people trying to set him up for failure. And finally in the end it all works out and you are happy for him. I really enjoyed Longitude. It's not at all the kind of book I expected. It's an entertaining story and wouldn't you know, I learned something too. Who would have thought learning could be fun, right? Seriously, if you have an interest in sailing, travel, history, or even just clocks then this is a book definitely worth checking out for a light read.

posted by BWasvick on May 14, 2010

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Most Helpful Critical Review

4 out of 12 people found this review helpful.

Not science; no genius

In 1714, the English government announced it would award a prize to anyone who found a method for its ships to determine their longitudes. The two most plausible ways were knowing your time accurately, or by measuring the stars. But clocks were not yet very...
In 1714, the English government announced it would award a prize to anyone who found a method for its ships to determine their longitudes. The two most plausible ways were knowing your time accurately, or by measuring the stars. But clocks were not yet very accurate, and the stars had not been thoroughly mapped. Thus the title is misleading: the problem was of engineering and not science as we know it. Further, the story¿s hero (Harrison) was not a genius but a persistent and gifted technician who could make extremely accurate clocks. It was common knowledge that if ship¿s navigators could tell time accurately, they could determine their longitude accurately, thus no new concepts were involved. The importance of this problem to exploration and commerce are well told in the book. The book¿s shortcoming is that the story is reduced to a hero and villain conflict, and does not enlighten the reader about how new technologies are developed and adopted. There was every good reason for the establishment to resist Harrison¿s clocks. It took him, a master craftsman, years to build just one clock. How could such a clock be mass-produced to outfit thousands of ships? The world had not even yet heard of interchangeable parts. What if the ship¿s clock were damaged or lost during voyage? Wasn¿t it better to rely on astronomical methods, measuring moon and star positions? True, this method was still not optimal, but then you didn¿t have to worry about a mechanism breaking down. It also seems that Harrison did not develop anything technically new or compelling for his clocks, though it is hard to say because the book does not describe their inner workings. Instead Harrison seems to have taken the existing clockmaker¿s art to its epitome. Thus the view that only Harrison was capable of making such clocks, and that that ability would die with him. Harrison worked entirely alone, and created no `school¿ of technicians trained to follow him. This makes even more understandable the reluctance to adopt time-keeping to measure longitude. Yet these real issues are barely mentioned, and the reader is told that Harrison was just being persecuted by thick-headed villains. In summary, this book is a human-interest story that has little useful to say about the history of science or the development of technology.

posted by Anonymous on October 8, 2000

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  • Posted May 14, 2010

    Longitude

    Longitude by Dava Sobel is the story of English clockmaker John Harrison who competed for a prize from the English government to discover an effective way to track longitude. He had no formal education but learned how to read from his father. His father taught him many trades, and with these trades and a love of reading, Harrison made a clock just by studying a textbook. Without being able to calculate longitude ships never really knew where they were or were going on long voyages, thus causing many wrecks and deaths of sailors. There was thought there might be a celestial solution. The problem with using the stars was that you had to be extremely skilled as an astronomer and have a great knowledge of the stars movement to figure location. With nobody being able to solve the longitude problem the British government set up a prize committee in 1714 called the Board of Longitude to help inventors financially so they could try and find a way to calculate longitude. Harrison finishes four sea clocks, each one better than the last, but the Board of Longitude will not award him the prize. The Board of Longitude favors astronomer Nevil Maskelyne and his lunar distance method theory, which attempts to use the moon to track longitude. He never gets the prize from the Board of Longitude who continued to use any means necessary to not allow him to win. Harrison's clock was finally recognized by King George III and Parliament who, despite the Board of Longitude putting him down, awarded Harrison with the money that was rightfully his. Clock making became a huge business after Harrison's success and the mass production of his sea clock became a priority. I'm not a big reader, to say the least, but honestly, I really enjoyed the read. These days it's just expected that our cruise ship or airplane will get to exactly where it's going. Honestly, I have never thought twice about it. I never realized what a big impact not being able to calculate longitude had on the sailing world. Ships would wreck all the time simply because they couldn't calculate where they were. The book had plot, and a good storyline, and a good climax, and a happy ending. I though I was reading fiction. You are drawn in by the main character's story and you feel for him in his struggle to win the prize, and all the obstacles he faces in creating his longitude clock and all of the people trying to set him up for failure. And finally in the end it all works out and you are happy for him. I really enjoyed Longitude. It's not at all the kind of book I expected. It's an entertaining story and wouldn't you know, I learned something too. Who would have thought learning could be fun, right? Seriously, if you have an interest in sailing, travel, history, or even just clocks then this is a book definitely worth checking out for a light read.

    31 out of 36 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 10, 2011

    Why didn't Dava teach at my school?!

    I would be much more conversant on science and technology if Dava Sobel had been a teacher at my school. Someone recommended this book to me. I was enthralled, pressed it on everyone I knew, and went to the Clockmaker's Guild in London to see the various versions of the instrument. This book is the centerpiece of my "Recommend But Never Lend" bookshelf, along with her book on the planets.

    15 out of 15 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 6, 2012

    Highly recommended

    One reviewer mentioned it would make a great movie, well...AandE did just that. I use it every year in my science class when we study maps.

    13 out of 15 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 9, 2012

    Anxiously Awaiting the Movie!

    Fantastic read that would make an awesome Hollywood blockbuster movie. It has all the ingredients: High-technology, High-sea adventure, Villainous politicians, and a persistent genius of common birth who wins the day. All the more awesome as it is a true story. Contains many historical figures and scientists whose names have been remembered over the centuries. Dava Sobel is an engaging author that presents an historical account that reads like a murder mystery.

    9 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 25, 2007

    Good Science and Progress

    A very good, short read. This is one of those stories that makes you think deeply about how one invention or discovery can drive civilization forward. I disagree with the reviewer who stated this is not genius or science. The invention of the chronometer required application of scientific principles, and if it was so easy to develop, why didn't anyone else do it sooner? Of course, it is also a human interest story or how could the author sell books to the general (non-science) community at large. A brilliant move by the author to educate the general population on an important discovery in human history that most probably have never heard of or considered the contribution.

    7 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 6, 2011

    John Harrison, John Harrison, John Harrison

    I pulled into a shopping center parking lot late one afternoon but before I got out of the car, I picked up an advanced reading copy of Longitude just to look at the first few pages. I read this slim volume from cover to cover and never got out of the car. I spent the rest of the year trying to convince every employee and visitor to our building that Longitude was the gift book of the season. This saga of science and seafaring is an adventure story of exploration and discovery. It demonstrates the tension between theory and experimentation and the clash between the academic and the artisan. That a craftsman such as John Harrison could crack the mystery of longitude calculation with a mechanical rather than an astronomical solution was not acceptable to the educated establishment. But Harrison's ingenuity saved many lives, revolutionized transportation and expanded the world economy. By resurrecting this forgotten figure of the Age of Enlightenment, Dava Sobel has done lovers of history and science a signal service. And it's a terrific read to boot.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 8, 2000

    Not science; no genius

    In 1714, the English government announced it would award a prize to anyone who found a method for its ships to determine their longitudes. The two most plausible ways were knowing your time accurately, or by measuring the stars. But clocks were not yet very accurate, and the stars had not been thoroughly mapped. Thus the title is misleading: the problem was of engineering and not science as we know it. Further, the story¿s hero (Harrison) was not a genius but a persistent and gifted technician who could make extremely accurate clocks. It was common knowledge that if ship¿s navigators could tell time accurately, they could determine their longitude accurately, thus no new concepts were involved. The importance of this problem to exploration and commerce are well told in the book. The book¿s shortcoming is that the story is reduced to a hero and villain conflict, and does not enlighten the reader about how new technologies are developed and adopted. There was every good reason for the establishment to resist Harrison¿s clocks. It took him, a master craftsman, years to build just one clock. How could such a clock be mass-produced to outfit thousands of ships? The world had not even yet heard of interchangeable parts. What if the ship¿s clock were damaged or lost during voyage? Wasn¿t it better to rely on astronomical methods, measuring moon and star positions? True, this method was still not optimal, but then you didn¿t have to worry about a mechanism breaking down. It also seems that Harrison did not develop anything technically new or compelling for his clocks, though it is hard to say because the book does not describe their inner workings. Instead Harrison seems to have taken the existing clockmaker¿s art to its epitome. Thus the view that only Harrison was capable of making such clocks, and that that ability would die with him. Harrison worked entirely alone, and created no `school¿ of technicians trained to follow him. This makes even more understandable the reluctance to adopt time-keeping to measure longitude. Yet these real issues are barely mentioned, and the reader is told that Harrison was just being persecuted by thick-headed villains. In summary, this book is a human-interest story that has little useful to say about the history of science or the development of technology.

    4 out of 12 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted May 17, 2000

    The birth of the chronograph

    Latitude and longitude are fundamentally different. Rotation of Earth endows our planet with an axial symmetry. So while finding latitude is relatively easy, determining longitude is not. Save the moon and the planets, the night sky looks exactly the same if you travel along the parallel 15 degrees to the east east, or simply wait for an hour. Without an accurate clock and a sextant, this made navigation on the open sea a black magic. For any expanding overseas empire, this was serious matter. Serious enough that the British Parliament offered a high prize -- several millions dollars in today's money -- in 1714 for solving the longitude problem. <P>By 1730, the world still did not have any practical and reliable method of finding longitude. By 1760, it had two. One of them, backed by Britain's the most influential astronomers of the time, included a quadrant (later sextant) and tabulated ephemerides. With them, a skilled navigator could have calculated its position within hours, in clear weather. The other method required only an accurate clock. If the clock can tell you your home time, you only need to determine your local noon -- when the shadows are the shortest -- and the difference between the two tells you your longitude. This method was backed by a lone clockmaker, John Harrison. This book is about him, about his life-long pursuit of a reliable, seaworthy chronometer, and his battle with the scientific establishment. <P>Eighteen-century mechanics, while far from trivial, is intuitive enough to make explaination of the internal workings of a shiny brass clockwork a wonderful topic. With some diagrams and explanations of Harrison's ingenious inventions, this book could easy become any engineer's dream. Perhaps the illustrated edition (ISBN 0802713440) comes closer to this ideal. Ms. Sobel, although allegedly a science writer, was more interested in the socio-political aspects of the story, and hardly touches the engineering part. Deliberately neglecting the engineering audience, the book is far from being a historical scholarly text either. She writes in an easy-to-read, journalese style. Fair enough, some thirty references are listed in the end for anyone willing to pursue the topic further. So while you cannot claim you've learned a lot of science or history, Longitude still makes a great beach reading. And of course, reading this book is a must for anyone planning to visit the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, England, where the clocks are exhibited.

    4 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 9, 2009

    Intriguing book!

    My husband and I chose this book for our couples' book group at the recommendation of our son who is a sea captain and voracious reader. The short length of the book also added appeal, and we had a very good discussion which evolved into talk of other problems of great value to the human race which took a long time to solve. We made the discussion current by inviting the group to name unsolved problems for our planet, both physical and ethical. The men in our group included a middle school math teacher, an engineer, a former member of the Coast Guard, and a former Navy officer. Everyone was most enthusiastic about our choice and all fifteen participants read the book, which is rare!

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 15, 2012

    Pleasantly Suprised

    I started out reading this book just for a science project, but I was pleasantly surprised by how much I actually did enjoy this book. I found it to be a very interesting book because, it is not like most history books. This book was written in a way that a person with no scientific background could understand the actions of brilliant scientists took to solve a very big problem of its day. The book was written in more of a story telling mode and kept my interest throughout the entire book. I could emotionally relate to all of the people with the problem of its time. So many lives were lost and so much money was lost from wasted cargo and sunken ships. It was interesting to see the politics of the times too and how that impacted the timeline of finding the ultimate solution. It is funny to me that so many brilliant men took hundreds of years to finally figure out a solution. Because humans were involved their egos do too of course and their political position impacts the actions to create a clock that was ship worthy.
    John “Longitude” Harrison was a good man that was dedicated to his science and what he created has had a positive impact on the human race for hundreds of years. His legacy will live on forever. Sobel has a great talent in writing. Her work was interesting to read and still was accurate in her facts. She made the scientists in the book understandable and “real”. I wish more history books took this concept and brought the information to life.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 16, 2011

    Excellent!

    Longitude reads like a novel, but is the true story of John Harrison's search for a time piece to aid ships find their way across the oceans. The book makes a great companion to the dvd.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 27, 2008

    science class review

    The book Longitude was a pretty good book. In the story it explained how the greatest scientific problem was solved. There were many different ideas to solve the longitude problem. But, the strongest were a mechanical answer or using the lunar method. The problem arrived when sea captains couldn¿t find there longitude at sea and were crashing their ships and getting lost. So the English government came up with this new idea. They said who ever could find longitude at sea and be accurate would get &#8356 20,000. They then had a Royal Observatory formed but then they had the Board of Longitude to do all the testing. The most famous of all the inventors was John Harrison. He built five clocks and each one improved on the other. His first clock H-1 had a certain type of wood for gears so it didn¿t need to be oiled it was self lubricated. When he brought this to the Board of Longitude they liked it and tested it. It did really good but Harrison pointed out what he wanted to change and all the things wrong with it. So Harrison asked for &#8356 500 to make it better. He got &#8356 250 and he built H-2 which was better but he didn¿t like that much and it didn¿t ever get to be tested. By the time they were about to test it Harrison came out with H-3. This was a really good clock. It was the best one he made so far. It worked perfectly and when it was tested it was approved but the head of the Royal Observatory hated the mechanical idea he was in favor of the lunar theory. Then Harrison came out with H- 4 which was his best clock. It was the smallest and most advanced. He sent it to be tested and the tester put it through so many tests that they broke it. Harrison got all mad about this. He ended up getting around the &#8356 20,000 but only &#8356 10,000 was from the Board of Longitude. The rest was from the king. After all these years of these clocks being mistreated Gould a captain cleaned them up and repaired them to working order. You now can go see all of these clocks in a museum. All of them are running except for H-4. They don¿t want it running so it wont break. I recommend this book to a reader who is intelligent and likes to learn about the world¿s greatest discoveries.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 10, 2000

    Time is on my side...!

    When I first read this, I was astounded by the verbosity of the English Government of the time. Now, I am convinced... As a Yachtsman and Navigator, nothing has inspired me more than reading such an extravagant novel. Thank you, Dava

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 19, 2000

    Came Back to This After Galileo

    I had heard about this book of course but demands of time didn't get me back to it until I first read Sobel's current bestseller Galileo's Daughter. They are different kinds of books with regard to their stories but the ability of this author to bring the story to life shines through in both. Longitude meets the great challenge of having not only to research and bring back to life a rather small 'niche' in the history of man's technological search but also make the story relevant to today and illustrative of all endeavors that involve the pioneer and his ability be breach that gap required by inventiveness. This book will definitely keep you going. Galileo, on the other hand, has a special human touch, brought to it by the letters and reminds much of the story-telling method used by the other book I recommend below. Sobel deserves the kudos. Tough to know whether Longitude or Galileo's Daughter would have been better as first or second books!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 15, 2014

    A good and quick read .

    A great story about a man who was determined to solve the longitude problem for sailors.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 13, 2014

    An absorbing historical document with as much impact as a trip to the moon

    We only get to know the works of this low profile man who is responsible for safer sea travel. We learn much more about his adversaries with their agendas and their quest for prominence. It is a story of mans perseverance against insurmountable odds

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 13, 2014

    Interesting History of the challenge & difficulty of making an accurate clock that will withstand the rigors of the sea.

    The book details the importance of design and construction of a clock that maintains accurate time under the rigors of the difficult conditions of life aboard a ship. The ability to maintain accurate time is essential to enable navigators to determine precise longitude at sea. The changes in temperature, humidity, and tortuitous motions of life aboatd a sailing ship challenge clock design. The book explains the differences between relying on a dependable timepiece compared to the predictability of positions of celestial bodies. The book relates the interaction of the many people involved in developing the attempts at design and construction and also those judging the merits of various design concepts.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 13, 2014

    Longitude - a true story of dedication, persistence, and intrique

    This book details one of the great back-stories of history. Everyone knew determining longitude was a huge problem, but only a handful of people even had an idea how to solve it. The British government provided the incentive of a great prize and fabulous wealth to the winner of the contest, yet it still took decades to find the answer. As you might expect, greed and egos clashed as history was being made.

    Dava Sobel lays out the challenge and then provides an up-close view of the people toiling to find a solution. He interweaves this story with the great characters of British naval history, as everyone has a vested interest in finding the answer. This is a great read for any history buff. It's a little short, but it provides a true nugget about something we just take for granted today.

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  • Posted May 18, 2014

    I read this book in the mid 1990s when it first came out. I rare

    I read this book in the mid 1990s when it first came out. I rarely read non fiction, especially anything historical. However, this was a wonderful little book that was absolutely fascinating. Heartily recommended. 

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 17, 2014

    Borrow as this is more of a supplemental text book

    Non fiction and not a novel. Also sections are missing in e book copy. Of interest to sailors and astronomy students . note on a cloudy day you have a chance of seeing the sun at high noon and knowing sun moves east to west have a chance of figuring out where south is. Also good for antique road show if you have one.

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