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Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

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Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

ratings:
3/5 (1,804 ratings)
Length:
159 pages
3 hours
Publisher:
Released:
Jul 5, 2010
ISBN:
9780802779434
Format:
Book

Description

The dramatic human story of an epic scientific quest and of one man's forty-year obsession to find a solution to the thorniest scientific dilemma of the day--"the longitude problem."

Anyone alive in the eighteenth 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. One man, John Harrison, in complete opposition to the scientific community, dared to imagine a mechanical solution-a clock that would keep precise time at sea, something no clock had ever been able to do on land.

Longitude is the dramatic human story of an epic scientific quest and of Harrison's forty-year obsession with building his perfect timekeeper, known today as the chronometer. Full of heroism and chicanery, it is also a fascinating brief history of astronomy, navigation, and clockmaking, and opens a new window on our world.
Publisher:
Released:
Jul 5, 2010
ISBN:
9780802779434
Format:
Book

About the author

Dava Sobel is the internationally renowned author of ‘Longitude’ and ‘Galileo’s Daughter’. She is also an award-winning former science reporter for the ‘New York Times’ and writes frequently about science for several magazines, including the ‘New Yorker’, ‘Audubon’, ‘Discover’, ‘Life’ and ‘Omni’. She is currently writing a book called ‘The Planets’ for Fourth Estate. She lives in East Hampton, New York.


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Longitude - Dava Sobel

surprises.

1.

Imaginary Lines

When I’m playful I use the meridians of longitude and

parallels of latitude for a seine, drag the Atlantic Ocean

for whales.

—MARK TWAIN, Life on the Mississippi

Once on a Wednesday excursion when I was a little girl, my father bought me a beaded wire ball that I loved. At a touch, I could collapse the toy into a flat coil between my palms, or pop it open to make a hollow sphere. Rounded out, it resembled a tiny Earth, because its hinged wires traced the same pattern of intersecting circles that I had seen on the globe in my schoolroom— the thin black lines of latitude and longitude. The few colored beads slid along the wire paths haphazardly, like ships on the high seas.

My father strode up Fifth Avenue to Rockefeller Center with me on his shoulders, and we stopped to stare at the statue of Atlas, carrying Heaven and Earth on his.

The bronze orb that Atlas held aloft, like the wire toy in my hands, was a see-through world, defined by imaginary lines. The Equator. The Ecliptic. The Tropic of Cancer. The Tropic of Capricorn. The Arctic Circle. The prime meridian. Even then I could recognize, in the graph-paper grid imposed on the globe, a powerful symbol of all the real lands and waters on the planet.

Today, the latitude and longitude lines govern with more authority than I could have imagined forty-odd years ago, for they stay fixed as the world changes its configuration underneath them—with continents adrift across a widening sea, and national boundaries repeatedly redrawn by war or peace.

As a child, I learned the trick for remembering the difference between latitude and longitude. The latitude lines, the parallels, really do stay parallel to each other as they girdle the globe from the Equator to the poles in a series of shrinking concentric rings. The meridians of longitude go the other way: They loop from the North Pole to the South and back again in great circles of the same size, so they all converge at the ends of the Earth.

Lines of latitude and longitude began crisscrossing our worldview in ancient times, at least three centuries before the birth of Christ. By A.D. 150, the cartographer and astronomer Ptolemy had plotted them on the twenty-seven maps of his first world atlas. Also for this landmark volume, Ptolemy listed all the place names in an index, in alphabetical order, with the latitude and longitude of each—as well as he could gauge them from travelers’ reports. Ptolemy himself had only an armchair appreciation of the wider world. A common misconception of his day held that anyone living below the Equator would melt into deformity from the horrible heat.

The Equator marked the zero-degree parallel of latitude for Ptolemy. He did not choose it arbitrarily but took it on higher authority from his predecessors, who had derived it from nature while observing the motions of the heavenly bodies. The sun, moon, and planets pass almost directly overhead at the Equator. Likewise the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, two other famous parallels, assume their positions at the sun’s command. They mark the northern and southern boundaries of the sun’s apparent motion over the course of the year.

Ptolemy was free, however, to lay his prime meridian, the zero-degree longitude line, wherever he liked. He chose to run it through the Fortunate Islands (now called the Canary & Madeira Islands) off the northwest coast of Africa. Later mapmakers moved the prime meridian to the Azores and to the Cape Verde Islands, as well as to Rome, Copenhagen, Jerusalem, St. Petersburg, Pisa, Paris, and Philadelphia, among other places, before it settled down at last in London. As the world turns, any line drawn from pole to pole may serve as well as any other for a starting line of reference. The placement of the prime meridian is a purely political decision.

Here lies the real, hard-core difference between latitude and longitude—beyond the superficial difference in line direction that any child can see: The zero-degree parallel of latitude is fixed by the laws of nature, while the zero-degree meridian of longitude shifts like the sands of time. This difference makes finding latitude child’s play, and turns the determination of longitude, especially at sea, into an adult dilemma—one that stumped the wisest minds of the world for the better part of human history.

Any sailor worth his salt can gauge his latitude well enough by the length of the day, or by the height of the sun or known guide stars above the horizon. Christopher Columbus followed a straight path across the Atlantic when he sailed the parallel on his 1492 journey, and the technique would doubtless have carried him to the Indies had not the Americas intervened.

The measurement of longitude meridians, in comparison, is tempered by time. To learn one’s longitude at sea, one needs to know what time it is aboard ship and also the time at the home port or another place of known longitude—at that very same moment. The two clock times enable the navigator to convert the hour difference into a geographical separation. Since the Earth takes twenty-four hours to complete one full revolution of three hundred sixty degrees, one hour marks one twenty-fourth of a spin, or fifteen degrees. And so each hour’s time difference between the ship and the starting point marks a progress of fifteen degrees of longitude to the east or west. Every day at sea, when the navigator resets his ship’s clock to local noon when the sun reaches its highest point in the sky, and then consults the home-port clock, every hour’s discrepancy between them translates into another fifteen degrees of longitude.

Those same fifteen degrees of longitude also correspond to a distance traveled. At the Equator, where the girth of the Earth is greatest, fifteen degrees stretch fully one thousand miles. North or south of that line, however, the mileage value of each degree decreases. One degree of longitude equals four minutes of time the world over, but in terms of distance, one degree shrinks from sixty-eight miles at the Equator to virtually nothing at the poles.

Precise knowledge of the hour in two different places at once—a longitude prerequisite so easily accessible today from any pair of cheap wristwatches—was utterly unattainable up to and including the era of pendulum clocks. On the deck of a rolling ship, such clocks would slow down, or speed up, or stop running altogether. Normal changes in temperature encountered en route from a cold country of origin to a tropical trade zone thinned or thickened a clock’s lubricating oil and made its metal parts expand or contract with equally disastrous results. A rise or fall in barometric pressure, or the subtle variations in the Earth’s gravity from one latitude to another, could also cause a clock to gain or lose time.

For lack of a practical method of determining longitude, every great captain in the Age of Exploration became lost at sea despite the best available charts and compasses. From Vasco da Gama to Vasco Núñez de Balboa, from Ferdinand Magellan to Sir Francis Drake—they all got where they were going willy-nilly, by forces attributed to good luck or the grace of God.

As more and more sailing vessels set out to conquer or explore new territories, to wage war, or to ferry gold and commodities between foreign lands, the wealth of nations floated upon the oceans. And still no ship owned a reliable means for establishing her whereabouts. In consequence, untold numbers of sailors died when their destinations suddenly loomed out of the sea and took them by surprise. In a single such accident, on October 22, 1707, at the Scilly Isles near the southwestern tip of England, four homebound British warships ran aground and nearly two thousand men lost their lives.

The active quest for a solution to the problem of longitude persisted over four centuries and across the whole continent of Europe. Most crowned heads of state eventually played a part in the longitude story, notably King George III of England and King Louis XIV of France. Seafaring men such as Captain William Bligh of the Bounty and the great circumnavigator Captain James Cook, who made three long voyages of exploration and experimentation before his violent death in Hawaii, took the more promising methods to sea to test their accuracy and practicability.

Renowned astronomers approached the longitude challenge by appealing to the clockwork universe: Galileo Galilei, Jean Dominique Cassini, Christiaan Huygens, Sir Isaac Newton, and Edmond Halley, of comet fame, all entreated the moon and stars for help. Palatial observatories were founded at Paris, London, and Berlin for the express purpose of determining longitude by the heavens. Meanwhile, lesser minds devised schemes that depended on the yelps of wounded dogs, or the cannon blasts of signal ships strategically anchored—somehow—on the open ocean.

In the course of their struggle to find longitude, scientists struck upon other discoveries that changed their view of the universe. These include the first accurate determinations of the weight of the Earth, the distance to the stars, and the speed of light.

As time passed and no method proved successful, the search for a solution to the longitude problem assumed legendary proportions, on a par with discovering the Fountain of Youth, the secret of perpetual motion, or the formula for transforming lead into gold. The governments of the great maritime nations— including Spain, the Netherlands, and certain city-states of Italy—periodically roiled the fervor by offering jackpot purses for a workable method. The British Parliament, in its famed Longitude Act of 1714, set the highest bounty of all, naming a prize equal to a king’s ransom (several million dollars in today’s currency) for a Practicable and Useful means of determining longitude.

English clockmaker John Harrison, a mechanical genius who pioneered the science of portable precision timekeeping, devoted his life to this quest. He accomplished what Newton had feared was impossible: He invented a clock that would carry the true time from the home port, like an eternal flame, to any remote corner of the world.

Harrison, a man of simple birth and high intelligence, crossed swords with the leading lights of his day. He made a special enemy of the Reverend Nevil Maskelyne, the fifth astronomer royal, who contested his claim to the coveted prize money, and whose tactics at certain junctures can only be described as foul play.

With no formal education or apprenticeship to any watchmaker, Harrison nevertheless constructed a series of virtually friction-free clocks that required no lubrication and no cleaning, that were made from materials impervious to rust, and that kept their moving parts perfectly balanced in relation to one another, regardless of how the world pitched or tossed about them. He did away with the pendulum, and he combined different metals inside his works in such a way that when one component expanded or contracted with changes in temperature, the other counteracted the change and kept the clock’s rate constant.

His every success, however, was parried by members of the scientific elite, who distrusted Harrison’s magic box. The commissioners charged with awarding the longitude prize—Nevil Maskelyne among them—changed the contest rules whenever they saw fit, so as to favor the chances of astronomers over the likes of Harrison and his fellow mechanics. But the utility and accuracy of Harrison’s approach triumphed in the end. His followers shepherded Harrison’s intricate, exquisite invention through the design modifications that enabled it to be mass produced and enjoy wide use.

An aged, exhausted Harrison, taken under the wing of King George III, ultimately claimed his rightful monetary reward in 1773—after forty struggling years of political intrigue, international warfare, academic backbiting, scientific revolution, and economic upheaval.

All these threads, and more, entwine in the lines of longitude. To unravel them now—to retrace their story in an age when a network of orbiting satellites can nail

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Reviews

What people think about Longitude

3.1
1804 ratings / 90 Reviews
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  • (4/5)
    This is a fairly short (175 pages of text in trade paperback size) nonfiction account of the attempts to find a way to determine longitude at sea. It is primarily about John Harrison, inventor of the chronometer. There are no footnotes (intentionally by the author), but there is a two-page bibliography and four-page index.
  • (4/5)
    While this isn't normally a book I would have picked up when I read those cover summaries, for some reason, this really caught my eye and sparked a genuine interest in this part of maritime history.Historically accurate (I did a bit of research on a few points in the book), written nicely, and the fact that I've seen some of these clocks at The Clockmakers' Museum from my trip to London a few years back, definitely made it a page turner for me.
  • (4/5)
    A very enjoyable story about a rogue clock-maker who solved the longitude problem and made ocean going ships destination more accurate.I read this over a few months over break at work (its a short book). Its well written, with an interesting cast of characters, and has a well described history of longitude.Essentially, the problem is that its easy enough to figure out what latitude you are on (this can be figured from the stars), but longitude is a completely different story. Wrong guesses have doomed entire ships. Many people worked on it, and while using time was always a possibility, it would't work without a very accurate clock. So people went to the stars, and the moons on Jupiter, or even blowing off canons to indicate where the port was. But it wasn't until John Harrison, a rogue clock-maker, made his first clock (H-1) for navigation, that this problem was solved.Dava Sobel is so good at writing books about scientific discover - she manages to right a good story while keeping to the facts. This book is no different - the people involved come to life, from John Harrison, wary to give up his secrets, to the board who kept changing the rules of the longitude test because they didn't like an outsider winning the prize. Its also a short novel, and can be read in a few days.
  • (5/5)
    Well written and engaging as you traverse difficult content for the non-initiated.
  • (4/5)
    Another book length magazine article, but one I enjoyed very much. This traces the history of "the longitude problem", the need for sailors to know their location as they travelled across the globe. Calculations could be made using the moon and stars but they weren't accurate and this method was useless under cloudy skies. In 1714 England's Parliament offered a huge prize to anyone who could devise a device to measure longitude. So many useless ideas were proposed that the board managing the reward didn't even meet for 23 years. Then John Harrison, an uneducated clock maker, submitted his invention. Although championed by Edmund Halley and other astronomers and scientists, it took years for him to be recognized.This book is about that process, which had more twists and turns than you'd imagine, rather than about clock mechanics. I would have enjoyed learning about that but I can see it's outside the scope of this book. One thing I enjoyed was mentions of the longitude problem in popular culture - Gulliver's Travels mentions various impossiblities such as the discovery of perpetual motion and of the longitude, and one of the plates of Hogarth's The Rake's Progress shows a lunatic in an asylum writing a solution to longitude on a wall.
  • (2/5)
    The author tells about the search for a method to determine longitude, badly needed to safely navigate oceans. It aptly explains the two methods (by celestial bodies or by a ship-borne clock) that were developed, their advantages and disadvantages, and the inventions necessitated by each.The author mentions in their Acknowledgments that this book was expanded from a magazine article. Unfortunately, the book seemed overly long, and perhaps should have remained as a magazine article.
  • (5/5)
    Simply excellent.
  • (2/5)
    Not my thing.
  • (4/5)
    This is a brief and to-the-point narration of the history of the search for determining longitude and the struggles of John Harrison to build a clock that could withstand the motion, humidity, and temperature variations of sea voyages. This endeavor was so crucial to the exploration of the world that the Parliament offered a huge award for the creation of a method to determine longitude. What is nice about this book is that there are no deviations from the story - no detailed and ponderous history of navigation since the Stone Age, no biographies beyond what is pertinent to the story. Just the facts, ma'am, just the facts.
  • (3/5)
    Interesting account of one clockmaker's fight against an astronomy biased establishment during the quest for longitude. Ships could easily determine their latitude but longitude depended on knowing where they were in time relative to the time at a known location. They could relatively easily determine their local time at sea but would not know what GMT was for example. There were no clocks that could keep time accurately enough, especially considering the on board conditions that prevailed on the ships of the time. A huge reward was offered to anyone who could come up with a means of determining longitude and this was governed over by the Longitude Board. It was generally perceived that the answer lay in the heavens and it was a problem for the much respected astronomers of the time to solve. Step forward Mr Harrison and his clocks.
    An enjoyable and informative quick read.
  • (3/5)
    This is the story of the development of a clock accurate enough to measure longitude while at sea. As someone who was almost completely ignorant of pre-GPS maritime navigation techniques, this was fascinating to me. I'd never given much thought to how one finds their location on the ocean where there are no landmarks save the heavens. The descriptions of the clocks were marvelous; now I want to run off to Greenwich to see them. Though maritime adventure stories don't interest me, the history of maritime technology certainly does. The difficulties faced at sea are so different from those on land, and the ingenious methods of overcoming them make for good reading.A note on the audio: Kate Reading is not my favorite narrator. Her stilted cadence has ruined more than one audiobook for me, to the point where I avoid listening to books she reads. However, I decided to give this nonfiction a chance, and it wasn't too bad. I think a lot of the problem in other books is her atrocious attempt at an American accent. Using her natural British accent here, it sounded much more natural. It also helped that there wasn't much in the way of dialogue.
  • (3/5)
    subtitled *The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time*Although this book was only 175 pages long, it took me longer than I expected it to, to get through it. This is probably due to the fact that there was much more *math* and mathematical detail than my non-math brain could process and rather than just skim and skip, I tried to get through it all. The story itself, of John Harrison and his valiant attempts at inventing an instrument that would accurately determine longitude, the most pressing scientific challenge of his time, was fascinating. He was treated so badly by the organization which sponsored the competition to award the inventor; it was truly shameful. I guess this aspect of human nature hasn't changed much over time. There are 2 quotes, one from the beginning of the book, and one from the very end, that I liked:"...Time is to clock as mind is to brain.. The clock or watch somehow contains the time. And yet time refuses to be bottled up like a genie stuffed in a lamp. Whether it flows as sand or turns on wheels within wheels, time escapes irretrievably, while we watch...when the mainspring winds down so far that the clock hands hold still as death, time itself keeps on. The most we can hope a watch to do is to mark that progress. And since time sets its own tempo, like a heartbeat or an ebb tide, timepieces don't really keep time. They just keep up with it, if they're able.""With is marine clocks, John Harrison 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 word's whereabouts from the stars, and locked the secret in a pocket watch."Sobel is a good storyteller. Her description, at the beginning of the final chapter, of standing on the prime meridian of the world and how it is lit up these days in Greenwich, at the Old Royal Observatory, makes me want to see it for myself.
  • (5/5)
    Phenomenal and beautifully written account of what went into developing a technology that is taken for granted today. Great read!
  • (5/5)
    a fascinating and engrossing story of human achievement - told with pathos and abundant research
  • (4/5)
    A very strong account, as you will have heard. Note that Sobel focuses principally on the human story, not the scientific. That is, she does not go into much detail about precisely what Harrison did and how. This makes the book more readable, of course, but those seeking a more thorough understanding of Harrison's achievements may be disappointed. This is in no way to undermine the book: it's very good. But one should know what it is and is not trying to do.
  • (2/5)
    I found this so boring. I thought I would like it
  • (4/5)
    The quest to build the longitudinal clock, enabling sea traffic and perfecting the clockwork mechanism which European history hinged upon.

    A quick and fascinating read.
  • (3/5)
    Interesting read that details how the Prime Meridian came to be set in England and how a lone clock maker clashed with bureaucracy of the longitude commission.
  • (4/5)
    Short, but interesting story about the development of the chronometer. I didn't understand all the technical stuff, but still thought this to be a fascinating account of the work, trials and tribulations that went into conceiving this important instrument.
  • (5/5)
    I cannot know how accurate this book is, nor do I care too much. I enjoyed reading this book. It was a quick and easy read, and my interest was held the entire length of it. I felt like I learned much that I hitherto had not known and that is good enough for me. I have read that there are more exhaustive and accurate books, but do not care to look them up and read them. I recommend this book to any and all.
  • (5/5)
    Tore through my lovely new Folio edition. My old paperback was sent to me on Hawkbill from my grandparents after a trip to London.I've thought in my dotage I would work on model ships, but perhaps clocks would be sharper.
  • (4/5)
    Intriguing Sunday morning read!! Lovely story about persistence in the face of adversity!!
  • (4/5)
    Surprisingly interesting true story of John Harrison's quest for the "Longitude Prize", and how the English government "did him dirty"! As I share his surname, I found it doubly interesting.
  • (3/5)
    I wish I'd read this instead of the little book that was almost entirely text. The story, and the science, and the engineering, all make more sense now that I've paged through this one. I still can't recommend it though unless you're already geeky about historical navigation and clockmaking, though.
  • (3/5)
    & I'd thought Galileo solved the longitude problem. Interesting account of what was once the most compelling scientific puzzle. Strange to think of all those pre late 18th c. ships bumbling around on the seas without a real clue as to location.
  • (3/5)
    The story of the prize for the accurate calculation of Longitude, a far more difficult problem than that of Latitude is well explored in this well-written book. It was one of the first history of technology books that I read and a good introduction to the sub-genre. It discusses the struggle between theory and more physical means of measurement which provides an answer, but awaits good enough instruments. I may re-read.
  • (4/5)
    The fascinating tale of how self-taught clock-maker John Harrison solved the mystery of the longitude problem with his marine timepieces and battled the establishment who still believed the answer lay in astronomy.

    An interesting popular science/history book, tied together by the compelling story of Harrison.
  • (4/5)
    Interesting book on how the measurement of longitude was finally solved. Overall, it was good. His writing style is clear and straightforward. He crafted an interesting story from the historical records.There were two things that drove me nuts, though. First and foremost, Sobel never included any photos of the clocks he was talking about, except on the cover. I had seen the time pieces in Greenwich, but it's been 20 years! I would have found the description much more meaningful and clear if I could have seen the timepieces again.Second, he could have explained a bit more in detail about the mathematics involved, even if he put it in an appendix. I got the impression he fully understood the mathematics so I wonder if he was told explicitly by the publisher not to include it. Despite it's flaws, I'm still glad I read it.
  • (4/5)
    Very engaging style --I read it in one day -- much better than Sobol's A More Perfect Heaven on Copernicus, which inserted a silly play. This one is on John Harrison who developed the marine chronometer and then had a great deal of trouble getting paid the prize money, until George III intervened personally. The book is very good at explaining clearly the technical and scientific issues involved and the rivalry between the mechanical and astronomical approaches to the longitude problem (to say nothing of the really bizarre ones like the wounded dog method). Though Sobol is clearly sympathetic to Harrison, a self-taught carpenter who produced amazingly accurate clocks (some made of wood), she does make clear that the delay in winning the prize was largely due to his own insistence on taking many years to perfect an already functional chronometer. Also, though she is plainly unsympathetic to Maskelyne Nevil, the Astronomer Royal and champion of the rival lunar method, she makes clear that his method worked nearly as well and was initially much cheaper, as it relied on a set of tables that could be printed cheaply, whereas Harrison's clocks were made by hand. It was not until Arnold developed cheaper clocks that Harrison's concept was really useful.
  • (5/5)
    Anyone alive in the eighteenth 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. One man, John Harrison, in complete opposition to the scientific community, dared to imagine a mechanical solution--a clock that would keep precise time at sea, something no clock had ever been able to do on land. Longitude is the dramatic human story of an epic scientific quest and of Harrison's forty-year obsession with building his perfect timekeeper, known today as the chronometer. Full of heroism and chicanery, it is also a fascinating brief history of astronomy, navigation, and clockmaking, and opens a new window on our world.