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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 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.

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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 April 11, 2013

    Decently well written and interesting

    A decently well written and interesting book. I liked it, even though its not the type of book I would usually read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 4, 2013

    Missing parts

    The cover advertises a forward by Neil Armstrong and an 8 page color section. Both were missing.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 23, 2013

    I was definitely expecting more from this book after all of the

    I was definitely expecting more from this book after all of the reviews it received. I thought the content was very interesting and I loved learning about the history on longitude, but  the writing style was not amazing. I felt like the author went on and on in certain parts, and was very dry in other areas. Glad I read it overall but definitely left me wanting.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 29, 2013

    Nice informative read

    If you like clocks this book is right up your alley. It was a short read and informative but I would have preferred a bit less about the clocks and a bit more about the people. All in all though it was a nice read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 22, 2013

    I read this 131 page book in a couple of hours.  The text is fai

    I read this 131 page book in a couple of hours.  The text is fairly well written, but it soon becomes obvious that the writting is wordy because the story would otherwise cover only half as many pages.  At $3 for a Nook book, it is a fair value.-- the story is notable.  $12 for a paperback version...certainly not worth it.  Try wiki instead..

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 7, 2013

    Good info, but boring

    This book was assigned reading for my college Astronomy class. I barely made it through the first few chapters. It was so boring!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 30, 2002

    A Little Disappointing

    The beginning was excellent. It detailed John Harrison's (the lone genius) early years, how he self-educated himself, and explained England's prize for the discovery of a way to measure longitude. Unfortunately, the last third or so is a collection of names and dates that are really of no significance.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 16, 2001

    Great History, Good Read

    You can breeze through this in an afternoon and still learn an awful lot about politics and navigation. Would be ehlped by some diagrams. Recomended.

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