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Longitude [Paperback]

Dava Sobel
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (100 customer reviews)

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Book Description

4 Jun 1998

The dramatic human story of an epic scientific quest: the search for the solution of how to calculate longitude and the unlikely triumph of an English genius. ‘Sobel has done the impossible and made horology sexy – no mean feat’ New Scientist

Anyone alive in the 18th 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, Parliament upped the ante by offering a king’s ransom (£20,000) 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. Full of heroism and chicanery, brilliance and the absurd, LONGITUDE is also a fascinating brief history of astronomy, navigation and clockmaking.

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The thorniest scientific problem of the 18th 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. --Amazon.com


‘Perhaps the most famous book about getting lost since “The Odyssey”.’ Sunday Telegraph

‘An extraordinary tale of political intrigue and academic back-biting, of intellectual brilliance, and mechanical genius, of heroic endeavours and downright dishonesty … a superb achievement.’ Spectator

‘A true life thriller, jam-packed with political intrigue, international warfare, personal feuds and financial skullduggery.’ Daily Mail

‘Rarely have I enjoyed a book as much as Dava Sobel's “Longitude”. She has an extraordinary gift of making difficult ideas clear.’ Daily Telegraph

‘This brief history of time is a fine tribute to a man who changed the world.’ Irish Times

‘Dava Sobel has written a gem of a book … one of the best reads for the non-scientific to come along for many a moon.’ Financial Times

--This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Make time to read this 15 Mar 1999
By A Customer
While Longitude is, on the surface of it, a book about scientific endeavour, its appeal is due to the story of a man's struggle against the prevailing thought of the time and the board set up to judge the award for the discovery of a method of determining longitude which was full of people with vested interests. The determination and drive of Harrison is awesome; if it was a novel you would find it difficult to believe. This is arguably the one book that has driven the much quoted trend towards science based books. While the media asks if this signals renewed interest in things scientific, the real answer is more likely that stories such as this are successful because they are about real people with real obstacles to overcome. Well worth a read; it won't take you long!
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52 of 54 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Anniversary edition of a surprise best seller 10 Oct 2005
Dava Sobel's description of the search for an accurate means to measure longitude was a surprise best seller when first published. This latest, celebratory edition is prefaced by an introduction by Neil Armstrong. Does it add to the package?
Sobel took what was once an intractable problem - finding a means to work out precisely where you are - and turned it into a very readable account, making the history and science readily accessible to a popular readership. Working out latitude is not particularly difficult - the equator is a fixed point and observation of sun, stars, and length of day make it relatively easy to determine how far north or south you are.
But longitude? Because the earth spins (more or less) on a north/south axis, the two poles act as fixed points in space. There are no such fixed points on the equator - every point on the equator undergoes a complete revolution every twenty four hours. Longitude has always been problematic, and for the seafarer, that problem could easily prove fatal.
The solution came in the creation of clocks which would keep good enough time at sea, and the man responsible for their invention, Harrison, emerges from Sobel's book as a determined, driven man.
It's a fascinating little book, written in a highly accessible style. It's quite a quick read. It's a highly enjoyable read. It's also a stimulating read, and must have encouraged a few people to delve further into history and science.
But does it deserve a new edition? Well, the cachet of Armstrong's introduction is a reminder that long distance sea travel was once as dangerous as current space travel. It's unnecessary. Sobel's story is exciting enough, and will absorb you with or without an introduction. It remains an excellent little volume and a worthy publishing success - maybe it's time you read it again!
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars What a great little book! 8 Nov 2003
By joalem
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Just to prove that the most wonderful stories can be produced from true life, this science book for the layman tells the irresistable tale of John Harrison, winner of the English Parliament's prize for the determination of longitude in 1770.
This is a tiny book in the paperback version, and makes for a rapid but extremely satisfying read. Political intrigue, fascinating science and excellent incidental anecdotes abound. (My favourite occurs right at the beginning - the tale of a haughty admiral who has an uppity sailor hanged for daring to question his navigation, and who receives his comeuppance in the most deliciously ironic way.... and it's all true!)
Most of all, it brings into focus the concept of a "life's work" - John Harrison's dogged faithfulness to producing the world's most accurate chronograph in a practical, portable package. The sheer thought of spending 19 years perfecting just one variation of it is inconceivable; that he spent over 40 years refining his concept to the eventual prizewinning piece just boggles the mind.
This is a delightful read.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Needs More Diagrams 12 Jan 1999
By A Customer
I enjoyed Longitude, but it would be better with even a few diagrams to explain some of the details of Harrison's clock making breakthroughs. I couldn't form a picture just from reading the text how his gridiron pendulum allowed for temperature changes, but I'm sure it could have been explained quite easily with a diagram and a reference to basic physics. The recent Horizon programme on the BBC made exactly the same mistake. Without more explanantion we are really being asked to take the author's word for it about how clever Harrison's clocks were. It's a good story though. One thing I'm still not sure about is how do you measure local noon on board ship any more accurately than you measure the moon's position. With a few more explanations this book could have been excellent.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating but ultimately too one dimensional 9 Jan 2000
By A Customer
I share others reviewers' need for more detail about some of the technical points covered by Dava Sobel. The book is really too short but it was based on an article for the Harvard Review so that is understandable. It is a good overview but I would have liked both more personal detail of Harrison's family, and the personal effect on them of his titanic struggle, and more information about the context of his technical advances. The book is readable but ultimately frustrating; not detailed enough; and short on the personalities and characters of the protagonists, the various Astronomers Royal, naval officers and Harrison's horological contemporaries.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The birth of the chronograph 17 May 2000
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.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars A gift well received....
Bought as a present for my relative, it was a lot smaller than expected but it was requested so I presume he knew what he was getting! Read more
Published 6 hours ago by Beck
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Published 2 days ago by Sylvia Macmillan
5.0 out of 5 stars Good read.
A well written historical and scientific book about a real event. Good read.
Published 5 days ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars amazing story
Great book , ripping story, very appealing prints , a perfect gift .
Published 8 days ago by Peter M. Howell
5.0 out of 5 stars THE "HARRISONS' - what an achievement! 'LONGITUDE' - what a book!
I have just finished reading this authoritative, extremely well-researched yet concise account of one of Man's greatest achievements. Read more
Published 17 days ago by P BORG-BARTOLO
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Published 25 days ago by D A Pearce
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Re reading Longitude and still enjoying it the second time around !!!!
Published 28 days ago by Mrs. Patricia Barrington
4.0 out of 5 stars Great story - execution flawed.
Writing leaves a little bit to be desired. Some repetition and confusing time line as the writer darts backwards and forwards.
Published 1 month ago by David J. Marshall
3.0 out of 5 stars A little dissapointing
I bought this book after hearing Dava Sobel speaking about it on the Today programme on Radio4 here in the UK. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Shakey
4.0 out of 5 stars Time and place
I had read one or two books about ocean voyages in the sixteen, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Read more
Published 2 months ago by RMCT
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