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

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

3.8 112
by Dava Sobel

ISBN-10: 0753150379

ISBN-13: 9780753150375

Pub. Date: 07/01/1999

Publisher: ISIS Large Print Books

Anyone alive in the eighteenth century would have known that "the longitude problem" was the thorniest scientific dilemma of the day -- and had been for centuries. Lacking the ability to measure their longitude, sailors throughout the great ages of exploration had been literally lost at sea as soon as they lost sight of land. Thousands of lives, and the increasing…  See more details below


Anyone alive in the eighteenth century would have known that "the longitude problem" was the thorniest scientific dilemma of the day -- and had been for centuries. Lacking the ability to measure their longitude, sailors throughout the great ages of exploration had been literally lost at sea as soon as they lost sight of land. Thousands of lives, and the increasing fortunes of nations, hung on a resolution.

The quest for a solution had occupied scientists and their patrons for the better part of two centuries when, in 1714, England's Parliament upped the ante by offering a king's ransom ([pound]20,000, or approximately $12 million in today's currency) to anyone whose method or device proved successful. Countless quacks weighed in with preposterous suggestions. The scientific establishment throughout Europe -- from Galileo to Sir Isaac Newton -- had mapped the heavens in both hemispheres in its certain pursuit of a celestial answer. In stark contrast, one man, John Harrison, dared to imagine a mechanical solution -- a clock that would keep precise time at sea, something no clock had ever been able to do on land.

Longitude is the dramatic human story of an epic scientific quest, and of Harrison's forty-year obsession with building his perfect timekeeper, known today as the chronometer. Full of heroism and chicanery, brilliance and the absurd, it is also a fascinating brief history of astronomy, navigation, and clockmaking. Through Dava Sobel's consummate skill, Longitude will open a new window on our world for all who read it.

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Product Details

ISIS Large Print Books
Publication date:
Edition description:
Large Print
Product dimensions:
6.11(w) x 9.19(h) x 0.42(d)

Table of Contents

1.Imaginary Lines1
2.The Sea Before Time11
3.Adrift in a Clockwork Universe21
4.Time in a Bottle34
5.Powder of Sympathy41
6.The Prize51
7.Cogmaker's Journal61
8.The Grasshopper Goes to Sea74
9.Hands on Heaven's Clock88
10.The Diamond Timekeeper100
11.Trial by Fire and Water111
12.A Tale of Two Portraits126
13.The Second Voyage of Captain James Cook138
14.The Mass Production of Genius152
15.In the Meridian Courtyard165

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Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 110 reviews.
BWasvick More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
williamlweaver More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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!
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.

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.

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.

Jasonbyrdwithay More than 1 year ago
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.
Julia Sexton More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This Sentifical Excperamental Dizzalvment Project is awesome, your but Baseically do it Sientificly and mentally and notifi your Logical presence together, but dont' proclivity but, Baseically dont' porcivity it•
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A great story about a man who was determined to solve the longitude problem for sailors.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.