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

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The dramatic human story of an epic scientific quest and of one man's forty-year obsession to find a solution to the thorniest scientific dilemma of the day--"the longitude problem."

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. One man, John Harrison, in complete opposition to the scientific community, 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802779434
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Publication date: 07/05/2010
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 18,700
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Dava Sobel is the internationally renowned author of ‘Longitude’ and ‘Galileo’s Daughter’. She is also an award-winning former science reporter for the ‘New York Times’ and writes frequently about science for several magazines, including the ‘New Yorker’, ‘Audubon’, ‘Discover’, ‘Life’ and ‘Omni’. She is currently writing a book called ‘The Planets’ for Fourth Estate. She lives in East Hampton, New York.

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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. 139 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!
Robert Sosa 4 months ago
To get to point "B", just draw a straight line from point "A"? Not on the high seas where no one knew where point "B" lied. If you were not careful you might sail your ship to point "C" right down to the bottom of the ocean; and many did. Dedication, perseverance and a teaspoon of greed would play a big role in helping mankind solve that problem. Fascinating and riveting read.
Anonymous 10 months ago
Fun reading.
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.