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Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time Hardcover – September 15, 2005
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The thorniest scientific problem of the eighteenth century was how to determine longitude. Many thousands of lives had been lost at sea over the centuries due to the inability to determine an east-west position. This is the engrossing story of the clockmaker, John "Longitude" Harrison, who solved the problem that Newton and Galileo had failed to conquer, yet claimed only half the promised rich reward. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
While sailors can readily gauge latitude by the height of the sun or guiding stars above the horizon, the measurement of longitude bedeviled navigators for centuries, resulting in untold shipwrecks. Galileo, Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley entreated the moon and stars for help, but their astronomical methods failed. In 1714, England's Parliament offered #20,000 (equivalent to millions of dollars today) to anyone who could solve the problem. Self-educated English clockmaker John Harrison (1693-1776) found the answer by inventing a chronometer?a friction-free timepiece, impervious to pitch and roll, temperature and humidity?that would carry the true time from the home port to any destination. But Britain's Board of Longitude, a panel of scientists, naval officers and government officials, favored the astronomers over humble "mechanics" like Harrison, who received only a portion of the prize after decades of struggle. Yet his approach ultimately triumphed, enabling Britannia to rule the waves. In an enthralling gem of a book, former New York Times science reporter Sobel spins an amazing tale of political intrigue, foul play, scientific discovery and personal ambition. BOMC and History Book Club selections.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top customer reviews
Sorbel writes enthusiastically and holds attention without including extraneous detail which might bog down the reading, and after reading Longitude the second time- now I want to go back to the observatory and also to the clock museum in Guildhall, which I did not see.
The science of positioning on the Earth is fascinating and anyone who finds global positioning and astronomy intriguing should read this book
This book tells the story of longitude and how the problem of determining longitude was solved. It begins with a particularly disastrous British naval accident in 1707, after which Parliament established an X-Prize of sorts for methods to accurately determine longitude, to be administered by a Board of Longitude. The story then follows the two methods contending for the prize: those based upon examination of the positions of astronomical bodies, and those based upon accurately tracking the time at one's home port. (Knowing the time in, say, Greenwich would provide the time offset to a known longitude. From there simple division into twenty-four hours would reveal longitude of precision determined by the timekeeping method.) The story particularly follows John Harrison, the eccentric autodidact who built the first truly accurate seaborne clocks, and his efforts to win the prize; but it also tracks the efforts of the leading scientific minds toward an astronomical method. Behind all this lie the politics of the Board of Longitude, in particular its excess of faith in astronomical methods, and disdain for chronometric methods, as the latter took the clear lead.
This book is a popular account of the problem of longitude: if you're looking for an academic account of the story, look elsewhere. (And perhaps be wary of too easily accepting its assertions as fact: Wikipedia claims that the book unhesitatingly repeats a couple myths concerning the 1707 naval disaster, suggesting that perhaps not all facts this book relates are certainly so.) For that it remains entertaining throughout, giving a nice survey of story and its developments. It's definitely worth a read to get an idea of how ship-based navigation worked in a time before GPS and modern communication aids, and accurate clocks on every wrist (or phone, these days) -- which is to say, not always well.
A few complaints about the Kindle edition specifically. That foreword by Neil Armstrong touted on the cover? No, not yours -- it's not here. And some of the end bits mention illustrations of various clocks encountered in the book -- illustrations not in this edition. (In fact there are no images here beyond the cover image. I can't tell if that's a limitation of the Kindle edition, or of the original book [particularly as some reviews here discuss an illustrated version], so I can't hold it against the Kindle edition specifically. Either way it's a minor gripe you should be aware of.)
In closing I'll say one thing: I'll never see the card with the sextant on it in the 7 Wonders Game board game quite the same way again.