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


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 scientific establishment of Europe-from Galileo to Sir Isaac Newton-had mapped the heavens in both ...
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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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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 scientific establishment of 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, it is also a fascinating brief history of astronomy, navigation, and clockmaking, and opens a new window on our world.

In 1714, England's Parliament offered a reward to anyone whose method or device for measuring longitude proved successful. John Harrison imagined a clock that would withstand pitch and roll, temperature and humidity, and keep precise time at sea--something no clock had been able to do on land. This is the story of Harrison's 40-year effort to build his perfect timekeeper, known today as the chronometer.

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Editorial Reviews

New York Times
This is a gem of a book.
B. Wright
An extraordinary book.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
While sailors can readily gauge latitude by the height of the sun or guiding stars above the horizon, the measurement of longitude bedeviled navigators for centuries, resulting in untold shipwrecks. Galileo, Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley entreated the moon and stars for help, but their astronomical methods failed. In 1714, England's Parliament offered 20,000 (equivalent to millions of dollars today) to anyone who could solve the problem. Self-educated English clockmaker John Harrison (1693-1776) found the answer by inventing a chronometer-a friction-free timepiece, impervious to pitch and roll, temperature and humidity-that would carry the true time from the home port to any destination. But Britain's Board of Longitude, a panel of scientists, naval officers and government officials, favored the astronomers over humble ``mechanics'' like Harrison, who received only a portion of the prize after decades of struggle. Yet his approach ultimately triumphed, enabling Britannia to rule the waves. In an enthralling gem of a book, former New York Times science reporter Sobel spins an amazing tale of political intrigue, foul play, scientific discovery and personal ambition.
Library Journal
If you've grown up at a time when orbiting satellites were taken for granted, you'd probably not find reading a book about longitude an enticing prospect. But Sobel, an award-winning former science reporter for The New York Times who writes frequently for Audubon, Discover, LIFE, and Omni magazines, has transformed what could have been a dry subject into an interesting tale of scientific discovery. It is difficult to realize that a problem that can now be solved with a couple of cheap watches and a few simple calculations at one time appeared insurmountable. In 1714, the British Parliament offered a king's ransom of 20 million ($12 million in today's currency) to anyone who could solve the problem of how to measure longitude at sea. Sobel recounts clockmaker John Harrison's lifelong struggle to win this prize by developing a timepiece impervious to the pitch and roll of the sea. His clock, known today as the chronometer, was rejected by the Longitude Board, which favored a celestial solution.--James Olson, Northeastern Illinois Univ. Library, Chicago
Library Journal
We take so much for granted. Few of us have ever thought about why and how sailors navigate without becoming lost the moment land is no longer in sight. In fact, prior to the 18th century, whole navies, thousands of lives, and great fortunes were lost because no one knew how to measure longitude. Here is the story of the growing need, the parliamentary offers of huge awards, the politics, the frustrations, and the eventual success of John Harrison. An unschooled woodworker, Harrison developed the chronometer, which was much criticized at the outset in part because competition for the princely rewards was so fierce. The interlocking histories of astronomy, clocks, and navigation reveal the significance of the problem to the seagoing world, the parallel efforts to find answers, and Harrison's drive for perfection and resolution. While the complexities of the problems and personalities are not always easy to follow here, this abridged recording is nonetheless an interesting chronicle of scientific achievement.
School Library Journal
Opening with a chapter that outlines what follows, Sobel whets readers' appetites for hearing the colorful details of the search for a way for mariners to determine longitude. In an age when ships' stores were limited and scurvy killed many a seaman, missing a landfall often meant death-as, of course, did running aground. Sobel provides a lively treatment of the search through the centuries for a ready answer to the longitude problem, either through using lunar tables or through making an accurate clock not subject to the vicissitudes of weather and ocean conditions. Her account includes not only scientific advances, but also the perseverance, pettiness, politics, and interesting anecdotes that figured in along the way (it wasn't limes, for example, that first prevented scurvy on English ships, but sauerkraut). A pleasing mixture of basic science, cultural history, and personality conflicts makes this slim volume a winner.-Judy McAloon, Potomac Library, Prince William County, VA
This smart little (5x7.5") book contains the engrossing story of John Harrison's (1693-1776) 40-year obsession with the "the longitude problem" which resulted in what is known today as the chronometer, a tool that finally made accurate ocean navigation possible. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Gilbert Taylor
In the 1700s navigators could easily compute latitude, but finding longitude was nigh impossible. So valuable was a solution in terms of saving ships from fetching on rocks that England offered a munificent prize for a practicable method, and soon two avenues offered themselves. An accurate chronometer occupied the thoughts of clockmaker John Harrison, and a tediously compiled catalog of the stars, against which the moon could be used as a "clock," was pursued by astronomers. Sobel presents the contest's course with a stylish mix of technical and human insight that emphasizes Harrison's life and dealings with the stingy Board of Longitude, custodian of the prize. When his contraption, the fruit of decades of solitary labor, went to sea and seemingly met the requirements, the Board balked, not least because one of its members was the very astronomer working on the celestial method. His glory dimmed by raw rivalry, Harrison fell into obscurity, and his chronometers into disrepair until restored 60 years ago. Completing the rehabilitation, Sobel's is an exquisitely told tale of perseverance, disappointment, and vindication.
B Wright
An extraordinary book.
The New York Times
This is a gem of a book.
Absorbing, elegant.
Entertainment Weekly
Beautifully written.
Chicago Sun-Times
A perfect marriage of art and words.
From the Publisher

“This is a gem of a book.”—Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, New York Times

“A simple tale, brilliantly told.”—Washington Post Book World

“As much a tale of intrigue as it is of science…A book full of gems for anyone interested in history, geography, astronomy, navigation, clockmaking, and—not the least—plain old human ambition and greed.” —Philadelphia Inquirer

“Only someone with Dava Sobel’s unusual background in both astronomy and psychology could have written it. Longitude is a wonderful story, wonderfully told.”—Diane Ackerman, author of A Natural History of the Senses

“The marine chronometer is a glorious and fascinating object, but it is not a simple one, and its explanation calls for a writer as skilled with words as the watchmakers were with their tools; happily such a writer has been found in Dava Sobel.”—Patrick O’Brian, author of The Commodore and the Aubrey/Maturin series

New York Times Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

"This is a gem of a book."
author of A Natural History of the Senses Diane Ackerman

Only someone with Dava Sobel's unusual background in both astronomy and psychology could have written it. Longitude is a wonderful story, wonderfully told.
author of The Commodore and the Aubrey/Maturin ser Patrick O'Brian

The marine chronometer is a glorious and fascinating object, but it is not a simple one, and its explanation calls for a writer as skilled with words as the watchmakers were with their tools; happily such a writer has been found in Dava Sobel.
Washington Post Book World

"A simple tale, brilliantly told."
The New York Times
"A gem of a book."
Philadelphia Inquirer

"As much a tale of intrigue as it is of science…A book full of gems for anyone interested in history, geography, astronomy, navigation, clockmaking, and--not the least--plain old human ambition and greed."
"Intricate and elegant…No novelist could improve on the elements of Dava Sobel's Longitude."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802779434
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
  • Publication date: 7/5/2010
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 10,537
  • File size: 217 KB

Meet the Author

Dana Sobel is the bestselling author of Longitude, Galileo's Daughter, The Planets, co-author of The Illustrated Longitude, and editor of Letters to Father. She lives in East Hampton, New York.
Dava Sobel (born June 15, 1947) is the author of Longitude, Galileo's Daughter, The Planets, and most recently A More Perfect Heaven: How Copernicus Revolutionized the Cosmos. A former staff science reporter for The New York Times, she has also written for numerous magazines, including Discover, Harvard Magazine, Smithsonian, and The New Yorker.

Her most unforgettable assignment at the Times required her to live 25 days as a research subject in the chronophysiology lab at Montefiore Hospital, where the boarded-up windows and specially trained technicians kept her from knowing whether it was day outside or night.

Her work has won recognition from the National Science Board, which gave her its 2001 Individual Public Service Award "for fostering awareness of science and technology among broad segments of the general public." She also received the 2004 Harrison Medal from the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers in England and the 2008 Klumpke-Roberts Award from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific for "increasing the public understanding and appreciation of astronomy."

A 1964 graduate of the Bronx High School of Science, she has taught several seminars in science writing at the university level, and looks forward to a two-year residency at Smith College beginning in fall 2013.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii
1. Imaginary Lines 1
2. The Sea Before Time 11
3. Adrift in a Clockwork Universe 21
4. Time in a Bottle 34
5. Powder of Sympathy 41
6. The Prize 51
7. Cogmaker's Journal 61
8. The Grasshopper Goes to Sea 74
9. Hands on Heaven's Clock 88
10. The Diamond Timekeeper 100
11. Trial by Fire and Water 111
12. A Tale of Two Portraits 126
13. The Second Voyage of Captain James Cook 138
14. The Mass Production of Genius 152
15. In the Meridian Courtyard 165
Sources 177
Index 181
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First Chapter


Imaginary Lines

When I'm playful Is use the meridians of longitude and parallels of latitude for a seine, and drag the Atlantic Ocean for whales.

--MARK TWAIN, Life on the Mississippi

Once on a Wednesday excursion when I was a little girl, my father bought me a beaded wire ball that I loved. At a touch, I could collapse the toy into a flat coil between my palms, or pop it open to make a hollow sphere. Rounded out, it resembled a tiny Earth, because its hinged wires traced the same pattern of intersecting circles that I had seen on the globe in my schoolroom--the thin black lines of latitude and longitude. The few colored beads slid along the wire paths haphazardly, like ships on the high seas.

My father strode up Fifth Avenue to Rockefeller Center with me on his shoulders, and we stopped to stare at the statue of Atlas, carrying Heaven and Earth on his.

The bronze orb that Atlas held aloft, like the wire toy in my hands, was a see-through world, defined by imaginary lines. The Equator. The Ecliptic. The Tropic of Cancer. The Tropic of Capricorn. The Arctic Circle. The prime meridian. Even then I could recognize, in the graph-paper grid imposed on the globe, a powerful symbol of all the real lands and waters on the planet.

Today, the latitude and longitude lines govern with more authority than I could have imagined forty-odd years ago, for they stay fixed as the world changes its configuration underneath them--with continents adrift across a widening sea, and national boundaries repeatedly redrawn by war or peace.

As a child, I learned the trick for remembering the difference between latitude and longitude. The latitude lines, the parallels, really do stay parallel to each other as they girdle the globe from the Equator to the poles in a series of shrinking concentric rings. The meridians of longitude go the other way: They loop from the North Pole to the South and back again in great circles of the same size, so they all converge at the ends of the Earth.

Lines of latitude and longitude began crisscrossing our worldview in ancient times, at least three centuries before the birth of Christ. By A.D. 150, the cartographer and astronomer Ptolemy had plotted them on the twenty-seven maps of his first world atlas. Also for this landmark volume, Ptolemy listed all the place names in an index, in alphabetical order, with the latitude and longitude of each--as well as he could gauge them from travelers' reports. Ptolemy himself had only an armchair appreciation of the wider world. A common misconception of his day held that anyone living below the Equator would melt into deformity from the horrible heat.

The Equator marked the zero-degree parallel of latitude for Ptolemy. He did not choose it arbitrarily but took it on higher authority from his predecessors, who had derived it from nature while observing the motions of the heavenly bodies. The sun, moon, and planets pass almost directly overhead at the Equator. Likewise the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, two other famous parallels' assume their positions at the sun's command. They mark the northern and southern boundaries of the sun's apparent motion over the course of the year.

Ptolemy was free, however, to lay his prime meridian, the zero-degree longitude line, wherever he liked. He chose to run it through the Fortunate Islands (now called the Canary & Madeira Islands) off the northwest coast of Africa. Later mapmakers moved the prime meridian to the Azores and to the Cape Verde Islands, as well as to Rome, Copenhagen, Jerusalem, St. Petersburg, Pisa, Paris, and Philadelphia, among other places, before it settled down at last in London. As the world turns, any line drawn from pole to pole may serve as well as any other for a starting line of reference. The placement of the prime meridian is a purely political decision.

Here lies the real, hard-core difference between latitude and longitude--beyond the superficial difference in line direction that any child can see: The zero-degree parallel of latitude is fixed by the laws of nature, while the zero-degree meridian of longitude shifts like the sands of time. This difference makes finding latitude child's play, and turns the determination of longitude, especially at sea, into an adult dilemma-one that stumped the wisest minds of the world for the better part of human history.

Any sailor worth his salt can gauge his latitude well enough by the length of the day, or by the height of the sun or known guide stars above the horizon. Christopher Columbus followed a straight path across the Atlantic when he "sailed the parallel" on his 1492 journey, and the technique would doubtless have carried him to the Indies had not the Americas intervened.

The measurement of longitude meridians, in comparison, is tempered by time. To learn one's longitude at sea, one needs to know what time it is aboard ship and also the time at the home port or another place of known longitude--at that very same moment. The two clock times enable the navigator to convert the hour difference into a geographical separation. Since the Earth takes twenty-four hours to complete one full revolution of three hundred sixty degrees, one hour marks one twenty-fourth of a spin, or fifteen degrees. And so each hour's time difference between the ship and the starting point marks a progress of fifteen degrees of longitude to the east or west. Every day at sea, when the navigator resets his ship's clock to local noon when the sun reaches its highest point in the sky, and then consults the home-port clock, every hour's discrepancy between them translates into another fifteen degrees of longitude.

Those same fifteen degrees of longitude also correspond to a distance traveled. At the Equator, where the girth of the Earth is greatest, fifteen degrees stretch fully one thousand miles. North or south of that line, however, the mileage value of each degree decreases. One degree of longitude equals four minutes of time the world over, but in terms of distance, one degree shrinks from sixty-eight miles at the Equator to virtually nothing at the poles.

Precise knowledge of the hour in two different places at once--a longitude prerequisite so easily accessible today from any pair of cheap wristwatches--was utterly unattainable up to and including the era of pendulum clocks. On the deck of a rolling ship, such clocks would slow down, or speed up, or stop running altogether. Normal changes in temperature encountered en route from a cold country of origin to a tropical trade zone thinned or thickened a clock's lubricating oil and made its metal parts expand or contract with equally disastrous results. A rise or fall in barometric pressure, or the subtle variations in the Earth's gravity from one latitude to another, could also cause a clock to gain or lose time.

For lack of a practical method of determining longitude, every great captain in the Age of Exploration became lost at sea despite the best available charts and compasses. From Vasco da Gama to Vasco Nunez de Balboa, from Ferdinand Magellan to Sir Francis Drake--they all got where they were going willy-nilly, by forces attributed to good luck or the grace of God.

As more and more sailing vessels set out to conquer or explore new territories, to wage war, or to ferry gold and commodities between foreign lands, the wealth of nations floated upon the oceans. And still no ship owned a reliable means for establishing her whereabouts. In consequence, untold numbers of sailors died when their destinations suddenly loomed out of the sea and took them by surprise. In a single such accident, on October 22, 1707, at the Scilly Isles near the southwestern tip of England, four homebound British warships ran aground and nearly two thousand men lost their lives.

The active quest for a solution to the problem of longitude persisted over four centuries and across the whole continent of Europe. Most crowned heads of state eventually played a part in the longitude story, notably King George III of England and King Louis XIV of France. Seafaring men such as Captain William Bligh of the Bounty and the great circumnavigator Captain James Cook, who made three long voyages of exploration and experimentation before his violent death in Hawaii, took the more promising methods to sea to test their accuracy and practicability.

Renowned astronomers approached the longitude challenge by appealing to the clockwork universe: Galileo Galilei, Jean Dominique Cassini, Christiaan Huygens, Sir Isaac Newton, and Edmond Halley, of comet fame, all entreated the moon and stars for help. Palatial observatories were founded at Paris, London, and Berlin for the express purpose of determining longitude by the heavens. Meanwhile, lesser minds devised schemes that depended on the yelps of wounded dogs, or the cannon blasts of signal ships strategically anchored--somehow--on the open ocean.

In the course of their struggle to find longitude, scientists struck upon other discoveries that changed their view of the universe. These include the first accurate determinations of the weight of the Earth, the distance to the stars, and the speed of light.

As time passed and no method proved successful, the search for a solution to the longitude problem assumed legendary proportions, on a par with discovering the Fountain of Youth, the secret of perpetual motion, or the formula for transforming lead into gold. The governments of the great maritime nations--including Spain, the Netherlands, and certain city-states of Italy--periodically roiled the fervor by offering jackpot purses for a workable method. The British Parliament, in its famed Longitude Act of 1714, set the highest bounty of all, naming a prize equal to a king's ransom (several million dollars in today's currency) for a "Practicable and Useful" means of determining longitude.

English clockmaker John Harrison, a mechanical genius who pioneered the science of portable precision timekeeping, devoted his life to this quest. He accomplished what Newton had feared was impossible: He invented a clock that would carry the true time from the home port, like an eternal flame, to any remote corner of the world.

Harrison, a man of simple birth and high intelligence, crossed swords with the leading lights of his day. He made a special enemy of the Reverend Nevil Maskelyne, the fifth astronomer royal, who contested his claim to the coveted prize money, and whose tactics at certain junctures can only be described as foul play.

With no formal education or apprenticeship to any watchmaker, Harrison nevertheless constructed a series of virtually friction-free clocks that required no lubrication and no cleaning, that were made from materials impervious to rust, and that kept their moving parts perfectly balanced in relation to one another, regardless of how the world pitched or tossed about them. He did away with the pendulum, and he combined different metals inside his works in such a way that when one component expanded or contracted with changes in temperature, the other counteracted the change and kept the clock's rate constant.

His every success, however, was parried by members of the scientific elite, who distrusted Harrison's magic box. The commissioners charged with awarding the longitude prize--Nevil Maskelyne among them--changed the contest rules whenever they saw fit, so as to favor the chances of astronomers over the likes of Harrison and his fellow "mechanics." But the utility and accuracy of Harrison's approach triumphed in the end. His followers shepherded Harrison's intricate, exquisite invention through the design modifications that enabled it to be mass produced and enjoy wide use.

An aged, exhausted Harrison, taken under the wing of King George III, ultimately claimed his rightful monetary reward in 1773-after forty struggling years of political intrigue, international warfare, academic backbiting, scientific revolution, and economic upheaval.

All these threads, and more, entwine in the lines of longitude. To unravel them now--to retrace their story in an age when a network of geostationary satellites can nail down a ship's position within a few feet in just a moment or two--is to see the globe anew.

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Interviews & Essays

Barnes & Noble: You have established yourself as a premier science writer, first for The New York Times and then with Longitude and Galileo's Daughter. What draws you to historical science?
Dava Sobel: I like looking back to times before scientific mysteries were solved and seeing what life was like without those solutions. One needs a distance of about a century to do that. Imagine living when all thinking about the solar system was turned inside out, and people had to accept the impossible notion that the solid ground beneath them was actually spinning and speeding through space.

B&N: Determining longitude was certainly a huge scientific challenge. How did this subject come to your attention?
DS: The problem of determining longitude came to my attention at a Longitude Symposium held at Harvard University. The symposium presented excellent speakers, each one telling another aspect of the historic quest to solve this important problem. Naturally they touched on economics, navigation, astronomy, mapmaking, timekeeping, and politics, but the phenomenal human interest story of John Harrison intrigued me. I literally sat with my chin on the floor for three days, then went home and wrote my article in great excitement. Harvard Magazine published the piece as a cover story, with Harrison's first sea clock on the cover. That image captured the attention of George Gibson, a Harvard alumnus at Walker. He called me the next day to ask if I could expand the article into a book.

B&N: Many current popular science authors are comparing their work to Longitude. Does your commercial success surprise you?
DS: It astounds me. The last thing one expects as a writer is to make money. People used to laugh or act embarrassed when I said the subject of my work in progress was longitude. My son, then about ten, asked, "Do you really think anyone will read this?" And I answered, "No, but it doesn't matter. I'm enjoying writing it, and George Gibson at Walker will publish it beautifully, and we'll always be proud of the work we did." But instead, the book became a publishing icon, gave Walker its first New York Times bestseller, and changed my life.

B&N: It must have been exciting, and a bit scary, to have Longitude adapted for the screen. How much creative control did you have?
DS: The experience was exciting and not a bit scary since the producers had the good sense not to involve me in the writing of the screenplay. I wouldn't have the first idea how to make a movie. I did get to see the script at various stages and always felt I could have objected had I found anything objectionable about it. I love how the director plucked Commander Gould (the part played by Jeremy Irons) from the final few pages of my book and made him a second protagonist, so that the film flips back and forth between the stories of Harrison in the 18th century and Gould in the early 20th -- two men obsessed and united by the same machines. Gould's terribly dramatic life -- including war service that produced a nervous breakdown and a lurid divorce -- makes him a naturally cinematic figure, compared to Harrison. He was a dogged workaholic who remained locked in his workshop by choice.

B&N: Galileo's Daughter has also been a phenomenal success. What did you find so compelling about the title character, Celeste?
DS: Suor Maria Celeste struck me as a compelling character first by her very existence. Who knew Galileo had a daughter? Then she surprised me by being a nun, when I'd always considered her father a great enemy of the Catholic church. Later she thrilled me with the beauty of her writing and the depth of her devotion to God and her own father. I found her a powerful force of goodness.

B&N: Will Galileo's Daughter be a movie anytime soon?
DS: Galileo's Daughter will be a movie, though not terribly soon. Granada Films, the producers of Longitude, has bought the rights but has not named a director and screenwriter. And, like Longitude, Galileo's Daughter will also be made into a NOVA documentary.

B&N: Can you tell us what you.re working on now?
DS: I'm at work now on a book about the planets of the solar system. I tried to write something on this subject several years ago, but now I'm approaching it entirely afresh.

B&N: Do you have a favorite book or author? What are you reading now?
DS: I have many favorite books and authors -- so many, in fact, that I hesitate to list any for fear of leaving out someone or offending a friend. I love true adventure stories, such as Alfred Lansing's Endurance, and I'm proud to have been an early supporter of Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm. I enjoy reading astronomy books, of course, and was a great fan of Carl Sagan's, having read all his books, from The Cosmic Connection to The Demon-Haunted World. I also like Fred Schaaf's little classic, The Starry Room, Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams, Tim Ferris's The Mind's Sky, and I especially loved Diane Ackerman's volume of scientific poetry called The Planets: A Cosmic Pastoral. Right now I'm reading (at last and with great pleasure) The Beak of the Finch, by Jonathan Weiner. I have a paperback edition that I carry about, to read on planes and trains. At home I'm still studying J. L. Heilbron's The Sun in the Church, which keeps me in the much beloved world of 17th-century astronomy. Also I have Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure as a book on tape in the car, which I "read" while driving.

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  • Posted May 14, 2010


    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.

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  • 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.

    10 out of 11 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.

    8 out of 9 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.

    6 out of 6 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.

    5 out of 13 people found this review helpful.

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  • 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.

    5 out of 8 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


    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 April 29, 2015



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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 14, 2015

    Hi Awesome very Logical

    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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  • 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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