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Sea Clocks: The Story of Longitude

Sea Clocks: The Story of Longitude

by Louise Borden, Erik Blegvad (Illustrator)

"For hundreds of years ships had been sailing to places far and near without really knowing where they were!"
Sailors knew how to measure latitude, their location north or south of the equator, but they could not measure longitude, their location east or west of their home port. Because of this, many lives were lost worldwide. The key to solving


"For hundreds of years ships had been sailing to places far and near without really knowing where they were!"
Sailors knew how to measure latitude, their location north or south of the equator, but they could not measure longitude, their location east or west of their home port. Because of this, many lives were lost worldwide. The key to solving this problem lay in devising a clock that could keep absolutely accurate time while at sea, unaltered by rough water or weather conditions. With such a timekeeper sailors would be able to know the time back at their home port and calculate the longitude. But no one knew how to design such a clock.
John Harrison (1693-1776), an Englishman without any scientific training, worked tirelessly for more than forty years to create a perfect clock. The solution to this problem was so important that an award of 20,000 pounds sterling (equal to several million dollars today) was established by the English Parliament in 1714. Harrison won recognition for his work in 1773.
Together with beautifully detailed pictures by Erik Blegvad, Louise Borden's text takes the reader through the drama, disappointments, and successes that filled Harrison's quest to invent the perfect sea clock.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
With clean, well-honed text, Borden (The Little Ships) steers this complex picture book about John Harrison, the British clockmaker who solved the "biggest scientific problem" of the 18th century, straight into her audience's grasp. To demonstrate the importance of accurately measuring longitude, a challenge that stumped "famous astronomers and scientists and ship captains and kings," the author explains that without knowing how "far west or east a ship [was] from its home port," a ship could sail in the wrong direction, or take too long to reach its destination and run out of food and water, or succumb to numerous other problems. In 1714, the English Parliament announced it would award 20,000 pounds (equal to several million dollars today) to anyone who could "solve the longitude problem." John Harrison, a provincial self-taught clock-maker, decided to try his hand by making a clock that worked at sea-and spent more than 40 years perfecting his work (and another dozen years before King George III forced Parliament to recognize his achievement). Blegvad's (Hurry, Hurry, Mary Dear) pen-and-ink illustrations-sometimes watercolored, often elegantly black-and-white-offer finely crosshatched views of the era, paying close attention to ships and rigging, timepieces, carriages, clothing and other period details. Stately where Kathryn Lasky and Kevin Hawkes's recent The Man Who Made Time Travel (also about Harrison) is playful, this fascinating tale is likely to quicken readers' interest in history and science. Ages 7-10. (Feb.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Children's Literature
Imagine taking a trip back to the time when clocks were handmade and watches not yet invented. This was the late 1600's. England had one of the finest sailing fleets as well as some of the greatest minds of the time. But even with those advantages sailors had a problem. Ships sailed all over the world without really knowing where they were. They knew where they were latitude-wise—north and south—but they did not know their longitude—east and west. Ships solved this problem be sailing the same routes, but they could get lost easily. Plus, they had the problem that pirates also sailed the well-known routes. Parliament offered 20,000 pounds to whoever could solve the problem. Along came John Harrison, clockmaker. Could he build a clock sturdy enough to withstand a sea voyage, but accurate enough to keep perfect time? Was a clock the right tool to solve the longitude puzzle? Borden chronicles an extraordinary life that focused on the building of five sea clocks, from a large clock—first attempt—to the fourth and fifth: five-inch diameter sea watches so beautiful and fine that they still exist and work today. But it took the intervention of King George himself for Harrison to get the prize. This is a beautifully written book. Borden takes great care to make the complicated longitude problem understandable to even the unscientific reader. Blegvad's illustrations are magical and should be savored. Harrison's story has the "I didn't know that!" sense of discovery and adventure that should keep young readers fascinated. This book would be a welcomed addition to the public, school, classroom or home library for young readers who enjoy remarkable true stories andextraordinary illustrations. 2004, Margaret K. McElderry Books, Ages 8 to 12.
—Judy Crowder
School Library Journal
This biography offers an account of the life of John Harrison, focusing on his persistence and ingenuity in creating the perfect sea clock, or chronometer. The poignant, well-researched text provides clear explanations of scientific concepts and is accompanied by distinguished black-and-white sketches and watercolor paintings. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Writing in blank verse for no discernible reason, Borden profiles John Harrison, monomaniacal inventor of a "chronometer" that revolutionized navigation at sea. It's a grand tale of lifelong dedication and justice delayed but done at last (there was a huge public award involved)-but it's just been told for the same audience in Kathryn Lasky's distinguished Man Who Made Time Travel, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes (p. 535). Hawkes's illustrations are broad, colorful, and sometimes comic, whereas Blegvad's are more delicate, depicting harbor scenes, ornate clocks, and small figures in 18th-century dress, in a medley of fine-lined ink drawings and muted color. It's a story worth telling, but because the two renditions cover largely the same territory, consider this one worthy, but not essential. (afterword) (Picture book/biography. 7-9)

Product Details

Margaret K. McElderry Books
Publication date:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
8.24(w) x 10.28(h) x 0.49(d)
910L (what's this?)
Age Range:
7 - 10 Years

Meet the Author

Louise Borden graduated from Denison University with a degree in history. She taught first graders and preschoolers and later was a part-owner of a bookstore in Cincinnati, Ohio. In addition to writing children’s books, she also speaks regularly to young students about the writing process. Her books include Good Luck, Mrs. K!, which won the Christopher Medal, and The A+ Custodian. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio, and you can visit her at LouiseBorden.com.

Erik Blegvad was born in Denmark and studied at the School of Applied Arts in Copenhagen. Mr. Blegvad has illustrated more than one hundred children's books, including Twelve Tales by Hans Christian Andersen, Riddle Road by Elizabeth Spires, Hurry, Hurry, Mary Dear! by N. M. Bodecker, and Sea Clocks: The Story of Longitude by Louise Borden. The Blegvads divide their time between England, France, and Wardsboro, Vermont.

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