So many women have written so many great books on history (Fraser's The Gunpowder Plot, Scurr's Robespierre, Eisler's Byron, Collingridge's Cook, Salmond's Bligh, Alexander's Bounty, Ann Wroe's Perkin, Weir's The Princes in the Tower, Wise's The Italian Boy) that I'm beginning to wonder if there's a special historian gene that only women possess. Which brings us to Dava Sobel's LONGITUDE. Sobel does a wonderful job of telling the story of how longitude was finally pinpointed, a discovery which allowed Britain to become an empire. Sobel tells us about 4 warships lost in 1707 because of a miscalculation. A seaman aboard, before the disaster, had warned the captain that he, the seaman, had been keeping track of distances, and that they were all in for trouble if they continued forward. The captain had him hanged for mutiny! But due to this incident, London offered 20,000 pounds (millions in today's money, writes Sobel) for someone who could find a way to calculate longitude. What was needed was an exact clock (Sobel explains why) which was difficult because clocks needed oil, but oil speeded up or slowed down a clock depending on temperature. William Harrison finally built a clock, 4 feet high, 4 feet deep and 4 feet wide, weighing in at 75 pounds! Little by little he did better until he finally won the money, 40 years after his first version! Alas, Harrison never explained how he came upon the discovery of gems--rubies and diamonds--for his clocks. Totally fascinating.
My own books can be found on Amazon under Michael Hone.