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

by Dava Sobel

Hardcover(Library Binding)

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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 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780613022200
Publisher: Demco Media
Publication date: 10/28/1996
Pages: 184
Product dimensions: 4.64(w) x 7.34(h) x 0.76(d)
Age Range: 12 - 17 Years

About 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.

Read an Excerpt


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.

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


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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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. 137 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!
stnylan on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
If ever there was a book to be used of an example of why history, even about relatively technical subjects, does not need to be dull, this is it. After all, the quest for longitude is a dry, technical subject if ever there was one. But it is also a human endeavour, and there are never dull unless our telling of them make them so. Dava Sobel does credit to the story and the people of the story, brings out their flaws, foibles, and strengths, and their personalities. Some might claim this book is nothing more than a popular history, and thereofore is not 'proper' history. Ironic in a way since the pre-eminent scientists of Harrison's own day claimed that his chronometers were not proper answers to the riddle. Yet his mechanical answer, as scientific as their astronomy (for what is mechanics and engineering but science applied to the real world?) proved more durable and more able than their lunar charts. By reaching out to a wider audience I imagine Sobel has done more good for the sum of human knowledge than many academics content to sit in their ivory towers. Top class work.
sylviaxxx on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book was recommended to me by my husband, Andy, who raved about it, and I was further inspired to venture into its pages upon seeing the excellent TV film, and I am so glad that I did - this book is a treasure. It follows the tortuous fortunes of John Harrison, clockmaker, who attempted and succeeded in solving the biggest scientific issue of his time, namely the development of a clock sufficiently accurate and robust to track time at sea and therefore measure longitude. The author portrays his subject with technical authority and reveals the characters in marvellous complexity, all set against the backdrop of naval history and adventure beginning in 1714.
miketroll on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Absorbing account of the 18th Century quest for a reliable method of plotting longitude. The English clockmaker, John Harrison, was eventually awarded the prize for a making a clock capable of keeping accurate time at sea - a prerequisite of longitude calculation.Since Dava Sobel's successful little book, some other scholars have cast doubt on the accuracy and effectiveness of Harrison's timepiece.
KWROLSEN on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this quick, educational read. I am certainly not well-versed in latitude and longitude and, frankly, took it for granted. Little did I know, longitude was a topic of debate for nearly a century! Sobel wrote this historical novel wonderfully. To my surprise, it was not dry or boring. I was given enough information to feel like I've learned something, but not enough to make the book feel overwhelming or verbose. Great read!
NielsenGW on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Dava Sobel is one of the greatest science writers of our time. She can turn the seemingly pedantic quest of a watchmaker in England to solve the Longitude problem into a rich tapestry of intellect and intrigue. John Harrison, with his series of four nautical clocks, managed to eschew hundreds of years of astronomical research to create a simple and elegant solution to a problem that caused countless deaths throughout history. This book is definitely worth a read.
jhevelin on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a fascinating historical/scientific story ... the author writes well and has clearly steeped herself in the history ... so I was surprised to find myself not wanting to rate the book more highly. This book has a "flat affect" -- there's potentially a lot of potential drama, but the author taps none of it. It's very much worth reading, but despite my genuine interest in the subject, I found myself unenthusiastic.
sylliu on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The most interesting part of this book is its history lesson: until the mid-1700s, the most difficult scientific problem in centuries of seafaring was the inability to measure longitude. Without knowing longitude, sailors had no reliable way of knowing where they were, resulting in lives, ships, and fortunes routinely lost at sea. So great was the need for a solution that the English parliament put up a bounty of £ 20,000 (multi-million dollars in today¿s currency) for anyone who could solve the problem. The book sets up the conflict between the greatest astronomers of the time (Galileo, Newton, Halley, and others), who thought the solution lay in mapping the moon and stars, and one man, John Harrison, an English clockmaker with no formal education, who labored against the establishment and a biased Board of Longitude. He solved the problem by making a revolutionary friction-free, pendulum-less clock that kept extremely accurate time despite salt air and rolling oceans. Although it bogs down in the middle, Longitude satisfies with its tale of Harrison's life-long quest and ultimate vindication.
mayoung on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Sobel, reveals the mechanical difficulties Harrison had to overcome in devising a clock far more accurate than any the world had ever known.
Laura400 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a well-written, fast-paced book that tells a great story about the invention of the first successful chronometer by an English clockmaker. The chronometer made it possible to determine longitude at sea, which not only saved lived but served British sea power. Sobel presents John Harrison's story along with easy doses of scientific, economic and social history. It is really well-done.
tututhefirst on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I won't claim to be able to explain or review this book. I think I understood about 1/2 of it, but it was short, and well written. It's the story of the development of the chronometer and the discovery and standardization of measuring longitude for sailors at sea. There is political intrigue, some history, and lots of technical science. If you're a sailor, and do any celestial navigation, you'll probably love it. I wish there had been a few diagrams, and illustrations....I think it would have helped a lot.
craigim on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A very quick and engaging read. I found it very difficult to put down.The book chronicles the history and political machinations surrounding the development of the first clocks suitable for maritime navigation.
neurodrew on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Read in a single evening, a Christmas gift from Joanne Shea. Sobel wrote a journalistic account of the quest for the Longitude prize, and the tricks that the Royal Astronomers played on William Harrison, the inventor of the first chronometer that did not vary with wave motion at sea. The astronomers would have prefered a method based on the position of the moon among the fixed stars, and resorted to every delaying tactic to avoid paying the prize to a mere technician.
sgerbic on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Reviewed Sept 2004 Always interesting to read the real stories behind things we take for granted. I never really gave any thought to longitude or latitude and frankly had to read the first chapter several times to understand it. After finishing I was frustrated that several questions were not answered. How were they able to measure the accuracy of a clock to within seconds when you could not be sure of the accuracy of either timepiece? And if a ship carrying a "tested" watch were to port at night would they have to wait till noon next day for a accurate reading by the sun? I don't have a clear enough background to understand for this subject. 15-2004
tcgardner on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book. If you are into history, then the history of marine chronography is for you. Dava Sobel gives us a good look and the physical, and, probably more difficult issue, the political problems encountered in finding a timepiece that would fix the longitude for sea captains.A good read. Recommended.