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Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius…

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest… (1995)

by Dava Sobel

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
6,328131623 (3.87)213
  1. 40
    The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes (Laura400)
  2. 10
    The Frozen Water Trade: A True Story by Gavin Weightman (harmen)
  3. 32
    The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco (polutropon)
    polutropon: Eco's book is a magical realist novel set in the Age of Exploration, in which the quest to reliably determine longitude at sea plays a pivotal role.
  4. 00
    A Short Bright Flash: Augustin Fresnel and the Birth of the Modern Lighthouse by Theresa Levitt (ALinNY458)
    ALinNY458: A Short Brief Flash is a high readable book that I thought had some parallels to the story told in Dava Sobel's fine book.
  5. 00
    Greenwich: The Place Where Days Begin and End by Charles Jennings (John_Vaughan)
    John_Vaughan: An account of the invention of true chronometer and definition of Longitude.
  6. 00
    Parallax: The Race to Measure the Cosmos by Alan W. Hirshfeld (LouRead)
    LouRead: Another dramatic story of the discovery of a scientific truth, told with flair. You won't want to put it down...
  7. 00
    Genesis to Jupiter by Peter Mason (KayCliff)
  8. 01
    Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey by Rachel Hewitt (John_Vaughan)

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» See also 213 mentions

English (122)  Spanish (3)  German (2)  Dutch (2)  Danish (1)  All (130)
Showing 1-5 of 122 (next | show all)
While calculating latitude had historically come relatively easy to ancient scientists and navigators by measuring the height of the sun and stars, there was no comparatively straightforward way to determine longitude -- bad news for ship captains the world over. As recently as 1714, English Parliament offered a prize to anyone who could devise a method of calculating longitude to within a set degree of accuracy. Clockmaker John Harrison accepted the challenge and proceeded to devote the next four decades of his life to this achievement, despite obstacles placed in his path by England's astronomer royal and the Board of Longitude itself. This slim volume is an interesting history behind a scientific concept that we take for granted today. ( )
  ryner | May 23, 2017 |
Great book on John Harrison and his contribution to maritime history and time keeping. ( )
  Reddog48 | Apr 21, 2017 |
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. ( )
2 vote mamzel | Feb 22, 2017 |
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. ( )
  Lord_Boris | Feb 21, 2017 |
This is an engagingly written non-specialist account of the hunt during the 18th century for an accurate way to measure longitude, and thus more accurately track sea voyages between west and east. While latitude had been understood since antiquity and has an absolute meaning relative to the north and south poles, longitude is entirely relative and can in principle be measured from any artificial line connecting the poles. The hunt was turned into a race by the British Parliament's Longitude Act of 1714, establishing a Board to consider proposals to measure longitude accurately, with a top prize of £20,000 for anyone able to measure it to within half a degree of accuracy. Why such a high profile prize? Ignorance of longitude was very costly, including costing the lives of many seamen, including two thousand in one incident in 1707 when four warships ran aground off the Scilly Isles. Ignorance also cost economically as it meant marine trade routes had to follow a very narrow safe path which restricted commercial growth.

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. ( )
  john257hopper | Dec 28, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 122 (next | show all)
Ms. Sobel, a former science reporter for The New York Times, confesses in her source notes that ''for a few months at the outset, I maintained the insane idea that I could write this book without traveling to England and seeing the timekeepers firsthand.'' Eventually she did visit the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, where the four clocks that James Harrison constructed are exhibited.
She writes, ''Coming face with these machines at last -- after having read countless accounts of their construction and trial, after having seen every detail of their insides and outsides in still and moving pictures -- reduced me to tears.''
Such is the eloquence of this gem of a book that it makes you understand exactly how she felt.
Here's a swell little book that tells an amazing story that is largely forgotten today but that deserves to be remembered.

It is the story of the problem of navigation at sea--which plagued ocean-going mariners for centuries--and how it was finally solved.

It is the story of how an unknown, uneducated and unheralded clockmaker solved the problem that had stumped some of the greatest scientific minds. And it is the story of how the Establishment of the 18th Century tried to block his solution.

The essential problem is this: In the middle of the ocean, how can you tell where you are? That is, how can you tell how far east or west of your starting point you have gone?

» Add other authors (22 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Sobel, Davaprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Armstrong, NeilForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dilla Martínez, XavierTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Reading, KateNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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When I'm playful I use the meridians of longitude and parallels of latitude for a seine, and drag the Atlantic Ocean for whales. --Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi
For my mother, Betty Gruber Sobel, a four-star navigator who can sail by the heavens but always drives by way of Canarsie.
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Once on a Wednesday excursion when I was a little girl, my father bought me a beaded wire ball that I loved.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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The history of portable time, or watch, and its important impact on navigating waters. John Harrison’s inventions of timepieces (H-1, H-2, H-3) leading up to the chronometer (H-4) in 1760 and its ability to chart longitude. John Harrison’s difficulties with the Board of Longitude in acknowledging his masterpiece.
GRÁÐUR lengdar er eftir Johan Harrison "sem varði fjörutíu árum í að smíða fullkominn tímamæli (sjóúr) og leysti eitt erfiðasta vandamál siglingafræðinnar á fyrri öldum," segir í kynningu. Sagt er frá hetjudáðum og klækjum, snilld og fáránleika, og mikilvægum þáttum í sögu stjörnufræði, siglingafræði og úrsmíða.
Bókafélagið Ölduslóð gefur bókina út. Elín Guðmundsdóttir íslenskaði. Bókin er 143 bls. Grafík prentaði. Leiðbeinandi verð: 3.280 kr.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0140258795, Paperback)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:57:49 -0400)

(see all 8 descriptions)

During the great age of exploration, the "longitude problem" was the gravest of scientific challenges. Without the ability to determine longitude, sailors and their ships were lost at sea as soon as they lost sight of land. In 1714, desperate for a solution, England's Parliament offered 20,000 pounds (the equivalent of millions of dollars today) to anyone who could solve the problem. With all the skill and storytelling ability of a great novelist, Dava Sobel captures the dramatic story at the heart of this epic scientific quest.… (more)

» see all 10 descriptions

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