The Longitude Prize: The Race Between the Moon and the Watch-Machine

Overview

A Robert F. Sibert Honor Book

By the start of the eighteenth century, many thousands of sailors had perished at sea because their captains had no way of knowing longitude, their east-west location. Latitude, the north-south position, was easy enough, but once out of sight of land not even the most experienced navigator had a sure method of fixing longitude. So the British Parliament offered a substantial monetary prize to whoever could invent a device to determine exact ...

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Overview

A Robert F. Sibert Honor Book

By the start of the eighteenth century, many thousands of sailors had perished at sea because their captains had no way of knowing longitude, their east-west location. Latitude, the north-south position, was easy enough, but once out of sight of land not even the most experienced navigator had a sure method of fixing longitude. So the British Parliament offered a substantial monetary prize to whoever could invent a device to determine exact longitude at sea. Many of the world's greatest minds tried — and failed — to come up with a solution. Instead, it was a country clockmaker named John Harrison who would invent a clock that could survive wild seas and be used to calculate longitude accurately. But in an aristocratic society, the road to acceptance was not a smooth one, and even when Harrison produced not one but five elegant, seaworthy timekeepers, each an improvement on the one that preceded it, claiming the prize was another battle. Set in an exciting historical framework — telling of shipwrecks and politics — this is the story of one man's creative vision, his persistence against great odds, and his lifelong fight for recognition of a brilliant invention.

The story of John Harrison, inventor of watches and clocks, who spent forty years working on a time-machine which could be used to accurately determine longitude at sea.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This rousing history focuses on the life of the British clockmaker who invented an ingenious way of measuring longitude at sea . . . John Harrison eventually succeeded overcoming not only the practical problem, but also the prejudices of the scientific community against his humble background and his unusual method."-Starred, School Library Journal
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Dash (We Shall Not Be Moved) pens an engrossing tale of the scientific contest for the Longitude Prize, which was offered through a 1714 act of the British Parliament in response to the devastating loss to the British navy of four battleships and hundreds of sailors. Opening with a gripping historical account of a shipwreck, the author sets up a compelling argument for the need to determine a vessel's position on the open sea. Without means for determining longitude, "English ships had been sailing everywhere in the Western world, relying on charts and maps that often had little relation to reality." The Parliament establishes the prize for "any device or invention for determining longitude" with a reward "roughly equal to $12 million today." (Even Isaac Newton competed.) Enter unlikely contender John Harrison, a carpenter and clockmaker, "a loner, plain-spoken, often tactless, with a temper he couldn't always control, and a genius for mechanics." Dash spotlights Harrison's biography as she navigates scientific and cultural history, describing the dynamics between officers and sailors. (She also mentions the role of Captain James Cook, of the Endeavour, in proving the worthiness of Harrison's invention--Cook figures prominently in Hesse's Stowaway, reviewed above). Petricic's caricaturelike drawings and the ragged-edge paper lend the volume a touch of class. Dash begins with more panache than she ends with, but keeps the suspense high throughout. Fans of science, history and invention and anyone who roots for the underdog will enjoy this prize of a story. Ages 10-up. (Oct.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Children's Literature
It is hard to imagine, in this day and age, not being able to determine exactly where you are. We have so many gadgets and gizmos in our lives to help us find everything and anything. And yet it was not so long ago when sailors could be not sure that they were where they thought they were. They were able to determine their latitude quite easily, but longitude was that elusive creature that would not be caged. Because positions of things were hard to determine, maps were inaccurate. It was a dreadful situation to be in because you could be lost, or your map could be wrong, or both. Eventually it was decided by the powers-that-be in London that a prize was going to be offered to the first person who came up with a way to determine longitude while at sea. Several people thought they had the answer. Some people believed that the answer lay in being able to read the stars. Others had a more earthly solution. One of these was John Harrison, an Englishman who held the belief that all one had to do was to be able to tell the "time in two places as once." Once sailors could do this, they could work out how far east or west they were. Harrison's passion was clocks and so he built clocks, lots of clocks. In fact he built the first clock that could tell time accurately at sea no matter what the weather was like or how much the ship pitched and rolled. What Harrison wasn't was a salesman, a speaker. He couldn't convince others that what he was doing had merit—that he could, and was, succeeding. In a way this is a very sad story, because the author shows us how Harrison stumbles around annoying people, failing to sell his ideas to the people who mattered. Indeed the author succeeds very well in showingus the problems, the times, and the desperate need that existed to have a solution to the Longitude Problem. We are left with a feeling of great gratitude to those scientists and clock makers who worked so hard and for so long to make it possible for us to find our way around our world without bumping into the wrong continent. 2000, Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
— Marya Jansen-Gruber
VOYA
British clockmaker John Harrison spent his life trying to find a sure method of determining longitude. Because of numerous shipwrecks attributed to the system of "dead reckoning," in 1714 the British Parliament established a Board of Longitude that offered a prize for discovery of a practical method of determining longitude at sea. Harrison, a village carpenter who designed and made clocks in his spare time, heard of the prize and began working on a seagoing clock to find out longitude. His efforts continued over the next forty years through the invention of five different clocks and watches. Occasionally aided by grants, Harrison's work was hampered by his own personality quirks, competition from other inventors, and a changing political situation. Finally in 1765, he was awarded one-half the prize money. After King George III intervened and Captain James Cook tested Harrison's fifth device, payment was authorized in 1773 for the second half of the longitude prize. Harrison, although the designer of the marine chronometer, was never designated the official winner and died without receiving recognition. The author belabors the fact that many details of Harrison's personal life are not known. Numerous qualifiers such as "maybe," "perhaps," and "might have" become annoying. Historical background information is poorly integrated, and the writing is stilted. Illustrations are superfluous and whimsical, not in keeping with the tone of the text. This book, one of few nonfiction accounts of the invention of chronometers written for younger students, sadly lacks readability that would sustain student interest. VOYA CODES: 2Q 1P M J S (Better editing or work by the author might have warranteda 3Q; No YA will read unless forced to for assignments; Middle School, defined as grades 6 to 8; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2000, Frances Foster Books/Farrar Straus Giroux, 210p. Glossary. Index. Illus. Biblio. Chronology. Ages 12 to 18. Reviewer: Sherry York VOYA, February 2001 (Vol. 23, No.6)
From The Critics
The lack of dependable navigation at sea was the prime obstacle to world exploration and commerce. Several of the great naval powers, Spain, Portugal, Venice, and France, offered prizes for solving the problem. In 1675 the Royal Observatory was built in Greenwich, England to work on the problem. However, it was John Harrison, a self-taught English clockmaker who developed a sea-going clock that could be depended upon for navigation at sea. This excellently written story of cleverness, determination, inventive insight, political wrangling, and bureaucratic balderdash is hard to put down. Chock-full of historical facts and delightfully illustrated, it can be a wonderful gift for the inquisitive older child. 2000, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc., $16.00. Ages 10 to 12. Reviewer: M. Henebry SOURCE: Parent Council Volume 8
From The Critics
The story of John Harrison's lifelong pursuit of creating a device to measure longitude is cast in terms of a race. Although Harrison's accomplishment took forty years, Dash infuses the story with a dramatic tension as she includes information about other inventors attempting to be the first to earn the English Board of Longitude's recognition and prize. Accounts of the sea trials of Harrison's invention add adventure and excitement to the text. By making inferences from historical texts, Dash makes John Harrison come alive for the reader. Through the use of metaphors and the excellent illustrations of Petricic, the author explains scientific facts and principles of Harrison's invention. She keeps the story moving without letting it become enmeshed in technical information that would frustrate young readers. Excellent as a supplemental reader in science and social studies classes. Genre: History/Science 2000, Douglas & McIntrye Ltd., 208p
School Library Journal
Gr 6 Up-This rousing history focuses on the life of the British clockmaker who invented an ingenious way of measuring longitude at sea. This form of measurement was undeveloped in the 18th century, so the British Parliament offered a prize of 20,000 pounds to the first person to come up with an accurate system. John Harrison eventually succeeded overcoming not only the practical problem, but also the prejudices of the scientific community against his humble background and his unusual method. Dash is enthusiastic about her subject, injecting true drama and excitement into the narrative without veering from history. Her explanations of science concepts are clear and easy to follow. Though Harrison's work is key, his life intersects that of many other colorful characters, including Edmond Halley and King George III, all of whom emerge as interesting individuals. Many parts of Harrison's life are unrecorded, but the text always clarifies which areas are speculation or fact. In fact, the piecing together of data by historians becomes a fascinating element of the book, giving readers insight into the challenges and techniques of biographical research. Petricic's small, clever illustrations that open each chapter enhance the text. Dava Sobel's Longitude (Walker, 1995) brought Harrison to the attention of many adults, but The Longitude Prize may need a push to find a young audience. Consider recommending this high-quality title for biography assignments, for inventor reports, and for fans of Jean Latham's Carry on, Mr. Bowditch (Houghton, 1955).-Steven Engelfried, Deschutes County Library, Bend, OR Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
John Harrison, an obscure 18th-century carpenter and clockmaker from Yorkshire, solved a problem that had plagued sailors for centuries: how to tell East-West location at sea, thereby avoiding shipwrecks and other costly disasters. To aid sailors, the British government offered the Longitude Prize, an enormous sum of £20,000 (an amount equal to $12 million today), to the inventor of a device that would determine longitude"that shall have been Tried and found Practicable and useful at Sea." Harrison met the challenge with his Harrison's Number One-H-1, the first accurate portable clock. Dash (We Shall Not Be Moved, 1996, etc.) brings the inventor to life with excerpts from his diaries and letters, as she reports on his painstaking experiments, refinements, and extensive sea tests of his 75-pound portable clock. B&w illustraions add a whimsical touch to the telling. For the gruff and meticulous clock-builder, perfecting the clock proved less difficult than claiming the prize offered. Politics and class distinctions in 18th-century England made it extremely difficult for someone not university-educated to get a fair hearing. It took the intervention of His Majesty George III and nearly 50 years of effort before Harrison saw even a portion of his prize money. Dash documents the development of Harrison's inventions and provides an overview of the politics and science of the period, introducing luminaries such as Sir Isaac Newton and Edmond Halley. Harrison emerges as a stubborn perfectionist who succeeded at long last through great effort. For a less-detailed but perhaps sufficient take on the subject, Trent Duffy's less-detailed The Clock (p. 630) provides a chapter onHarrisonand his chronometric clock. Dash's title provides an in-depth look at a little known inventor and his life and times and makes good use of primary sources seldom available to students. (afterword, glossary, timeline, bibliography) (Biography. 12-14)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374346362
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 10/13/2000
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Pages: 208
  • Age range: 9 - 12 Years
  • Lexile: 1160L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 6.41 (w) x 8.09 (h) x 0.87 (d)

Meet the Author

Joan Dash lives in Seattle, Washington. She is also the author of We Shall Not Be Moved: The Women's Factory Strike of 1909.

Dusan Petricic is a well-known editorial artist and illustrator of children's books. He lives in Toronto, Ontario.

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