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Longitude. The True Story Of A Lone Genius Who Solved The Greatest Scientific Problem Of His Time Hardcover – 19 Aug 1996
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The thorniest scientific problem of the eighteenth 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.
About the Author
Dava Sobel is an award-winning former science reporter for the New York Times and writes frequently about science for several magazines, including Audubon, Discover, Life and Omni.
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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.
Sobel introduces us to the problem at hand, namely that of working out what your longitude is when at sea. It was comparatively easy to work out what your latitude is; this can be done with some astronomical/solar observations. However, if you are on the equator, then to sail east or west by one degree of longitude will entail travelling further than if one is sailing at a constant latitude of, say 30 degrees. Though in so doing, Sobel does betray a lack of understanding of spherical geometry by stating that sailing on a line on constant latitude yields the shortest route west, instead of following a great circle.
The book then focuses on the work of John Harrison who thought the best way to solve the problem was with accurate timepieces that could be kept on board ships at sea. He was not without his rivals, though, with some convinced that further astronomical measures would avoid the need for accurate clocks. Yet the overriding sense one gets is that there was an institutional snobbery which Harrison was subjected to as he attempted to prove to the relevant authorities that his work was up to the task.
In so doing, Sobel avoids much of the science after having fumbled a little bit at the start and the rest is much more “pure” history. That left this reader a little frustrated, not least because I had heard such high praise for Longitude. As it is, it’s interesting enough but did not capture my attention as I had hoped it might. So it’s a pleasant enough read with some interesting aspects of history noted that I was previously unaware of, but it’s nowhere near as fine as The Age of Wonder. For anyone interested in the history of science, it is one to put on the reading list, but there is no need to unduly rush into reading it straight away.
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