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Longitude [Paperback]

Dava Sobel
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (83 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.



Product details

  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Fourth Estate; New edition edition (4 Jun 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1857025717
  • ISBN-13: 978-1857025712
  • Product Dimensions: 17.6 x 10.4 x 1.6 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (83 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 566,032 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Amazon Review

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

Review

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

"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 text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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
Format:Paperback
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 55 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Anniversary edition of a surprise best seller 10 Oct 2005
Format:Paperback
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
Format:Paperback
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
Format:Paperback
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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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
By lmck
Format:Paperback
...about how the modern world came to be and how men were persecuted for trying to advance our understanding. Dava Sobel has educated me not just about history (I am essentially ignorant) but also about human nature - how easily we refuse to move forward. I suggest if you read this and feel the same, try reading "Galileo's Daughter" and "To Father".
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars brilliant biography
I'm not really that interested in naval history but Sobel makes this a fascinating read, have read it 4 times, and went to visit the Harrison clocks in Greenwich when I was there,... Read more
Published 28 days ago by Emma B
5.0 out of 5 stars Longitude
One man's fight against all odds - and the establishment ! Harrison was a genius in the watch & clock making field. This book is a must ! Well written & well researched.
Published 1 month ago by Chauffeur
4.0 out of 5 stars Slightly flawed, but a decent read
I first heard about this some time ago as one of the best ‘popular science’ books of recent years. It was somewhat shorter than I thought it would have been, but then my perception... Read more
Published 1 month ago by S. Meadows
3.0 out of 5 stars Great book with a lie from Dava Sobel
I do not doubt the Harrison's importance in the history of marine chronometer, the whole of XIX century the Navy and the other armadas have been finding the longitude with Joseph... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Manuel Capdevila Maresma
5.0 out of 5 stars fascinating account of the competition to solve where we are
Unitil the mid 1700s the world lacked the science to know where ships were at sea - with often tragic results. Read more
Published 1 month ago by markr
5.0 out of 5 stars riveting
Complex concepts are so neatly covered and the involved people described so well.
A gem.
Perhaps some clue as to the deeper complexities of the chronometer might be... Read more
Published 2 months ago by R Passmore
5.0 out of 5 stars A MUST READ BOOK
This is the fifth copy I've bought, I keep lending them out and never getting them back.
A must read book!
Published 2 months ago by John
4.0 out of 5 stars Longitude
Great read, not too technical. Some diagrams and pictures would have been a great addition. However, it remains a remarkable story about a wonderful genius.
Published 2 months ago by M. J. Tavener
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent popular science book
This book really brings to life the characters involved in the pursuit of finding a reliable method of determining longitude. Read more
Published 3 months ago by R. H. Griffiths
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing book
Hard to believe the diligence & persistance of this man. An inspiration to anyone who has a belief in an idea.
Published 5 months ago by Martin
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