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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Make time to read this
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...
Published on 15 Mar 1999

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Needs More Diagrams
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...
Published on 12 Jan 1999


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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
This review is from: Longitude (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
By 
Budge Burgess (Kilmarnock, Scotland) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Longitude (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
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This review is from: Longitude (Paperback)
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
This review is from: Longitude (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
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
5.0 out of 5 stars there's a lot the average person does not realise...., 12 Mar 2003
This review is from: Longitude (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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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Good Read, but Could Have Been Great, 30 Nov 2002
By 
Bruce Kendall "BEK" (Southern Pines, NC) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Longitude (Paperback)
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 accommodate 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 identifies 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.
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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
This review is from: Longitude (Paperback)
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. Perhaps the illustrated edition (ISBN 0802713440) comes closer to this ideal. Ms. Sobel, although allegedly a science writer, was more interested in the socio-political aspects of the story, and hardly touches the engineering part. Deliberately neglecting the engineering audience, the book is far from being a historical scholarly text either. She writes in an easy-to-read, journalese style. Fair enough, some thirty references are listed in the end for anyone willing to pursue the topic further. So while you cannot claim you've learned a lot of science or history, Longitude still makes a great beach reading. And of course, reading this book is a must for anyone planning to visit the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, England, where the clocks are exhibited.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Pride and Prejudice, 26 Sep 2008
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This review is from: Longitude (Paperback)
Harrison seems to have been one of those people who is his own worst enemy; too proud to be successful.
Sobel is almost as prejudiced in his favour as some of those who opposed him were prejudiced against him. So it's difficult to feel you have read this and got the true picture. It seems that the astronomical methods were more successful than she admits for most of the book.
Nevertheless this is a helpful read which puts the development of clocks into context and reminds us just how difficult it was to navigate the seas safely in the days before GPS.
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12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable, but only part of the picture., 18 Aug 2006
By 
Adam Bell (Gloucestershire UK) - See all my reviews
This review is from: Longitude (Paperback)
This is an enjoyable book, but it is a pity that in making a good tale, the author has given such an unbalanced account. The Harrison chronometer was far from being the "solution" to the Longitude problem that Sobel implies. When Captain Vancouver sailed from England to the Pacific North West of America in the 1790's his two Harrison chronometers were showing times forty five minutes apart by the time he got there, making them useless. The "lunar distance method" gave the necessary correction. Captain Cook and his officers used lunar distances successfully in Australia, and when Joshua Slocum made his famous single handed voyage around the world, he carried a cheap alarm clock rather than chronometers because he used lunar distances. Enjoy the book, but look further, and look beyond crude hero and villain stereotypes!
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Longitude
Longitude by Dava Sobel
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