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Longitude Paperback – 4 Jun 1998
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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
First published in 1996, Dava Sobel's story of an epic scientific quest - how to calculate longitude. The thorniest scientific problem of the day had occupied scientists and their patrons for the better part of two centuries until John Harrison dared to imagine a mechanical solution. The story encompasses astronomy, navigation and clockmaking.See all Product description
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The early years of the hunt for a solution were dominated on the one hand by greats such as Isaac Newton, John Flamsteed and Edmond Halley, and on the other hand, by numerous lesser players proposing theoretically ingenious but flawed and wildly impractical solutions, involving for example, anchoring fleets of ships at regular intervals across the ocean, which would fire signals at regular intervals so that passing vessels could measure their distance from land to east or west. Later on the race was a battle between the astronomers and the engineers, between those who saw the solution in the movements of the stars and planets and those who saw technology as the answer. In truth, both were partly right. The movements of celestial bodies had a part to play, but had in practice to be complemented by a mechanical device that could provide a practical and quick solution to the long standing problem. Step forward one of the unsung heroes of science and technology - John Harrison, master clockmaker, who rose from obscure and humble origins in Lincolnshire to become one of the great innovators of all time. He produced four progressively simpler and smaller timepieces, the last of which H-4 was the prototype for slightly later, smaller mass produced timepieces that in the hands of ships' captains were a contributory factor in the expansion of British sea power in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. His arch rival was the Rev Nevil Maskelyne, Astronomer Royal, a man not above changing the rules of the race to suit the astronomers vs. the mechanics. While Maskelyne behaved shabbily, he did make his own considerable contributions to lunar observations as part of the solution, and was responsible for establishing Greenwich as the prime meridian from which longitude would be measured across the world thereafter. But Harrison is the hero of this story, a pioneer who, in the author's words, "With his marine clocks, ... tested the waters of space-time. He succeeded, against all odds, in using the fourth—temporal—dimension to link points on the three-dimensional globe. He wrested the world’s whereabouts from the stars, and locked the secret in a pocket watch."
A good read, though some footnotes would be good and, even more so, a few diagrams and illustrations.
Two main camps developed - the lunar distance method, which required numerous measurements of the sky and a clear day, and the method using clocks. The human drama of the battle between these camps, and of the genius of John Harrison, working largely alone to create a workable and accurate solution through the creation and testing of what is now known as a chronometer was for me the most enjoyable aspect of this short but facinating book.
Add to that that this is also a brief history of navigation, astronomy and clockmaking and there was a lot here for me to learn - and what an enjyable way to learn it. I have learned much more about clocks and watches that i ever thought i would want to - but I am glad I did in the company of this great little book.
As others have pointed out some illustrations would have been helpful, but i understand this has been rectified in later editions
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