If you can't get Newton and Galileo to solve your scientific problems, who do you turn to? Well the English government turned to everyone, hoping that some budding scientist could figure out the problem of calculating Longitude at sea. They even offered a huge reward. Why was it important? Without precise longitude, there was no way to steer a ship with any precision. Thus English ships were being wrecked and precious cargo wasn't making its scheduled delivery.
The scientists worked and worked on the problem. Many men including Edmund Halley thought that by mapping the stars, one could use the night sky as a map at sea. Although he knew little about science, a simple clockmaker named John Harrison thought that well-built clock with a dual face would solve the problem. You get to guess which person was right.
Longitude is both a vibrant story of the pains of solving an important problem, and a biography of the man who solved it. I don't tend to read the subject of science all that much, because I find it dry, but not so with this book. Author Dava Sobel lends an understanding of the human element in science. That Harrison has to fight snobbery first and later jealousy demonstrates how ego and self-importance can get in the way of the most important problems facing human beings. Not only will you learn how average people can solve enormous tasks, but you'll nod as the familiar self-promoters try to take the credit.
on October 11, 1999
Having bought and read "Longitude", the only lightly illustrated original hardback version, I wanted to know more about how the actual clocks worked, and I wanted to see them, without making a trans-Atlantic pilgrimage to Greenwich.
Hence, when I saw an illustrated version of "Longitude", I had to buy it. This book contains the original text, with no additions, except for the illustrations. The photographs are beautifully done, as is the printing.
My only hesitation in not awarding the book five stars is that I was hoping for one of two things; either an illustrated version of the original, with a couple of pictures of each chronometer, at a reasonable price, or a more detailed illustrated version, with more information on how the chronometers actually work. What we ended up with is a compromise. Beautiful pictures of the chronometers, but little extra detail of Harrison's marvelous inventions.
Still, an improvement on the original, which is an excellent book, one I have read several times. Highly recommended.
By the way, when I purchased this book, I donated my original version to the library.
So as not to repeat myself and try the patience of those customers who have already read "Longitude", I will confine my comments to the additional material in the illustrated version. If you haven't read "Longitude", it's a great little book, and I refer you to reviews by myself and others on that book's page.
"The Illustrated Longitude" contains the entire original text of Dava Sobel's book, "Longitude", along with 178 illustrations provided by William J. H. Andrewes. Mr. Andrewes hosted the Longitude Symposium that inspired Dava Sobel's book and has himself published the annotated proceedings of the Symposium in his book entitled "The Quest for Longitude". The illustrations in this book consist of portraits of people and photographs of documents and instruments which are referenced in the text. The documents include maps, journals, pages of books, and official decrees. Nearly every major player in the Longitude drama is represented with at least one portrait. Most fascinating are the photographs of the time pieces, themselves. I found the illustrations to be only mildly interesting until I got to the discussion of John Harrison's longitude clocks. At this point, I was astonished to see how grand and beautiful H-1 was...and still is, and how small and elegant H-4 is in contrast. I found it difficult to picture Harrison's clocks while reading Dava Sobel's book, and the ability to see them in this illustrated version has left me even more impressed with Mr. Harrison's work. All of Harrison's clocks are represented with large color photographs, and many of the later copies of his works by Larcum Kendall, Thomas Mudge, John Arnold, and Thomas Earnshaw are also pictured. I wish there were more illustrations addressing the workings of Harrison's clocks, but that's probably a subject for another book. I recommend "The Illustrated Longitude" to fans of John Harrison's work and early chronometers who will not have the opportunity to see these incredible instruments in person.
on September 3, 1999
If you never knew before what a major problem it was before the world knew how to measure longitude (and I certainly didn't), Dava Sobel tells of both the problem and the man who finally solved it in this easy-to-understand and interesting book. Meet John Harrison, the clockmaker/genius who fights the British scientific establishment to prove his method of measuring longitude does work. I found this book to be a quick, interesting read on a topic, and a man, most people don't know anything about, but should.
I originally read a library copy of "Longitude" back when it was published in 1995. But I hankered for a copy of my own. Recently I discovered this new illustrated version of the original and must say that it's a real find. The pictures really do help one understand better the magnitude of William Harrison's breakthrough discovery about how to use a very accurate timepiece (now called a "chronometer") to determine longitude and help ships avoid the tragedy of becoming lost with potentially tragic consequences. The text is not so technical to put off a non-expert. I'm sure one could learn more about the workings of the chronometer, but I suspect a more detailed explanation might have put it beyond the comprehension of many of us.
on September 9, 2013
In the age of GPS it is hard to believe that there was a time when sailors could not navigate the seas in safety. This book is so interesting and easy to read, yet it explains the discovery of how to determine Longitude in a way that is fascinating for adults and excellent for young teenagers as well. I always have three copies of the Illustrated book on hand. I give them as gifts all the time. I read this book while I was traveling and I had the opportunity to visit the The Royal Naval Museum, in Portsmouth's Historic Dockyard, England, that houses these wonderful clocks. One of my favorite books.
This is a highly readable little book, and I recommend it, with a few caveats.
Sobel presents her material logically and lucidly. She is a good prose stylist and is obviously an accomplished reporter. This book, however, feels like what it is: a series of articles stretched out a little to accomodate a best-seller format. The story is an intriguing one. An 18th century inventor rises from obscurity and against great odds and bias, produces an instrument that will prove of enormous benefit to his country and to humankind.
Just don't go into the reading of this book expecting great historical writing. Sobel acknowledges in a postscript that she doesn't include footnotes "because this book is intended as a popular account, not a scholarly study...". She has culled her research, for the most part, from interviewing historians, attending a seminar, and visiting various sites in England. At least she is forthright about her methodology, so she won't have to face the gauntlet that Kearns-Goodwin and Ambrose have recently had to run (mixed metaphor?).
Another minor irritation arises from the fact that one of the prominent blurbs one finds when opening the book comes from Diane Ackerman, whom Sobel later indentifies in her list of acknowledgments as her "dear friend." Again, at least she's being transparent about it, but it still strikes me as a bit disingenuous.
To her credit, Sobel does include a rather comprehensive bibliography, so those who want to further investigate Harrison's achievement are well guided.
Longitude is a good, quick summer read. For those who want some pith with their punch, however, I would recommend the A&E Sturridge video or CD adapted from this work.
on July 4, 2000
In the early 18th century, one of greatest scientific problems was calculating longitude on the high seas. At the time, navigators had two choices, both treacherous. They either traveled well-known routes, thus opening them to the threat of pirate attacks, or they used imprecise navigational methods to avoid that danger. But the latter method presented its own problems: it was more deadly because ships often got lost at sea or ran aground. Many sailors lost their lives and vast fortunes were dashed as ships crashed into rocks.
The problem was so serious that the English Parliament passed the Longitude Act in 1714. The Act established a panel of judges to study the problem and announced a prize of £20,000 (worth millions of dollars today) to anyone who could determine longitude accurately.
Enter John Harrison, a self-educated amateur clockmaker from Yorkshire. He believed that the solution lay in time, not in the heavens, as the scientific establishment had postulated. Harrison devoted his entire life to the pursuit of the longitude prize, all the while battling university scholars who thought him an incompetent crank.
In Longitude, author Dava Sobel tells Harrison's story with vigor and insight. It is clear that she greatly admires Harrison's genius and determination. She describes how he "went from...humble beginnings to riches by virtue of his own inventiveness and diligence, in the manner of Thomas Edison or Benjamin Franklin."
Throughout Harrison's illustrious career, he invented a number of innovative techniques for keeping accurate time-and solved many problems that had plagued clockmakers for centuries. Sobel writes: "Most pendulums of Harrison's day expanded with heat, so they grew longer and ticked out time more slowly in hot weather. When cold made them contract, they speeded up the seconds, and threw the clock's rate off in the opposite direction." Harrison solved this by "combining long and short strips of two different metals-brass and steel-in one pendulum..." Another invention of Harrison's was caged ball bearings, which are still used today.
Harrison did eventually win the longitude prize, but not until he was in his late 70s. The debate over the way longitude would be found raged on throughout his many trials over the decades between the 1720s and the 1770s. He submitted two clocks to the Longitude Board between 1737 and 1741 (named H1 and H2), but spent nearly twenty years perfecting H3, which he finally submitted in 1769. During this time, a rival 40 years younger than Harrison, the Reverend Nevil Maskelyne, insisted that the lunar distance method was the way that longitude was to be found. Sobel makes clear that Maskelyne, while a foe to Harrison, was not exactly a villain. Rather he was more like an anti-hero. While Harrison's method eventually won out, Maskelyne did make many important contributions to the science of astronomy. Sobel is objective enough to give credit where credit is due.
Longitude is written in a breezy, easy-to-read style. Sobel tells her tale chronologically, providing the essentials of the struggle while maintaining the historical context. She describes the painstaking observations and integrations that Harrison had to make in order to create his famous clocks. The solitary years he spent in his workshop focusing on his central goal is an inspiration to behold, particularly in an age like ours, where the individual is often looked upon with derision and contempt.
Because Longitude is a popular account, there are few technical details. For the most part, this lack of detail does not detract from the book, but occasionally the lack of technical description confuses the reader. For example, Sobel does not explain how one determines local time on a moving ship. Nevertheless, this flaw does not detract from the overall value of the book. Sobel tells her tale well and brims with enthusiasm for John Harrison and his wonderful invention that solved a centuries-long obstacle to safe navigation on the high seas. At the end of the book, Sobel touchingly describes her reaction to seeing Harrison's clocks for the first time. "Coming face-to-face with these machines at last-after having read countless accounts of their construction and trial, after having seen every detail of their insides and outsides in still and moving pictures-reduced me to tears."
on June 20, 2004
Note: This review has been written from a city with the following position on Earth:
LATITUDE: (43 degrees 2 minutes North)
LONGITUDE: (81 degrees 9 minutes West.)
This book contains the original 1995 "Longitude" text by Dava Sobel. In order to understand the significance of this text, the reader has to understand some words in this book's title and subtitle.
"Longitude" along with Latitude are two numbers along with their compass directions that are used to fix the position of anything on the planet Earth (as in the note above). Lines of Latitude are the imaginary, parallel, horizontal lines circling the Earth with the equator (fixed by nature) being the "zero-degree parallel of latitude." Lines of Longitude or "meridians" are the imaginary lines that run top to bottom (north to south), from the Earth's North Pole to its South Pole with the "prime meridian" (established by political means) being the "zero-degree meridian of longitude." (Since the mid-1880s, the prime meridian has passed through Greenwich, England. Before this time, the imaginary line that passed through a ship's home port was usually used as the zero-degree meridian.)
Finding latitude on land or sea is easy and eventually a device was invented to make it even more easier. But finding longitude, especially at sea on a swaying ship is difficult, a difficulty "that stumped the wisest minds of the world for the better part of human history" and was "the greatest scientific problem" of the 1770s. Ways of determining longitude astronomically were devised, but these proved to be impractical when used at sea.
England's parliament recognized that "the longitude problem" had to be solved practically since many ships containing people and valuable cargo were lost at sea as soon as the ship's navigators lost sight of land. Thus, this parliament offered a top monetary prize that's equivalent to many millions of dollars today to anyone who could solve this problem.
Enter "a lone genius" named John Harrison (1693 to 1776). While most thought that the solution to this problem was astronomical, Harrison saw time as the solution.
To calculate the longitude using time on a ship at sea, you have to realize these two facts found in this book:
(i) The Earth takes 24 hours of time to spin 360 degrees on its axis from east to west.
(ii) Noon (12:00 PM) is the highest point the sun seems to "travel" in a day.
To learn one's longitude at sea using time, as the book explains, it's necessary to do the following:
(1) Know the time it is aboard ship. (Local noon was normally used because of fact (ii) above.)
(2) At the very same moment, know the time at a known longitude (such as at Greenwich, England).
(3) The difference in time between (1) and (2) is converted to a longitude reading in degrees and direction (using fact (i) above.)
So Harrison's solution was the determination of time of (2) above by inventing a precise timepiece. It would, in this case, be set to Greenwich time. (Note that, as stated, (1) could be determined using the noon-day sun but this was not always practical. Eventually, another timepiece was used to determine the ship's local noon for a particular day.) It should be realized that this was the "era of pendulum clocks" where, on a deck of a rocking ship, "such clocks would slow down, or speed up, or stop running altogether." Harrison was to capture time by building a marine clock or "timekeeper" (eventually called a "chronometer") that could be used on a ship at sea.
This book tells the "true story" of Harrison and his chronometers. (There were five built over a forty-year period. Harrison's first timekeeping device was known as H-1, his second was H-2, and so on.) Sobel uses accuracy (as evidenced by her many references) and extensive interviews with experts in the historical and marine navigational fields to create an engaging, mostly non-technical narrative to convey a story that's filled with suspense, heroism, perfectionism, and villiany. (She includes some essential technical detail of her description of Harrison's timekeepers.)
The nearly 180 illustrations chosen by William Andrewes compliment and add another dimension to Sobel's text. As Sobel explains: "Images of characters, events, instruments (especially [the exterior and interior] of Harrison's [timekeeping] contrivances), maps,and publications...illuminate the narrative. These pictures, paired with Will's detailed, [informative, and well-referenced] captions, offer up their own version of a swashbuckling, scientific adventure in the context of history and technology."
Finally, there is a good 1999 movie entitled "Longitude" that is based on this book's text. It makes all the illustrations in this book come alive.
In conclusion, this book's text and illustrations document the exciting story of how "a lone genius" solved "the longitude problem." Sobel states this more eloquently: "With his marine clocks, John Harrison tested the waters of space-time. He succeeded, against all odds, in using the fourth...dimension to link points on a three-dimensional globe. He [took] the world's whereabouts from the stars, and locked [or captured] the secret in a...watch."
on December 22, 1999
I've never spent much time wondering about measurement of distance or the development of timepieces, but I am interested in learning new things in almost any subject. So when I saw this book, my interest was piqued.
I looked forward to a fascinating story of the solution to the puzzle of longitude. Although that information was provided, I was somewhat disappointed.
The stories of the problems caused by lack of ability to locate outselves on the ocean were fascinating, in a terrible way - people who ventured onto the seas were almost surely doomed, unless they found land by a lucky fluke. But the story of the development of the solution to that problem was told in such a dry way that I felt little of the same excitement. I wanted to know more of why Harrison's opponents felt as strongly as they did, and why he didn't pursue the reward that was so clearly his. The cover blurb indicated that this would be the story not only of the development but also of the competition, in human terms, but that wasn't the case.
I learned a lot, but missed the excitement of learning. And I definitely feel that the book suffers mightily by lack of any illustrations at all. For technoboobs like me, with no knowledge of How Things Work And Why, illustrations, diagrams, photos, are essential to understanding. I understand that later editions of this book include illustrations - I read it in 1996. Perhaps the author has also seen fit to include more information about the human side of the project. Either way, though, the subject is interesting, so I can recommend it for that.