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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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  • 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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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 30, 2013

    I HATED IT

    AND I LOVE SCIENCE

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 29, 2012

    Hated it

    I did not like the book. It wasnt easy to get into. Even when I did get into the book it still sucked.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 8, 2011

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    Posted July 28, 2009

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 27, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted July 1, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted December 10, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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