Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

Dava Sobel's megabestseller Longitude is fully deserving of all the praise it has received.  Within this slender tome she reveals the remarkable story of the 18th Century clock maker William Harrison and his dogged determination to create a clock that would accurately tell time in two far removed places.  If this could be done it would enable sailors to determine longitude and vastly improve the safety of the British fleet.

On October 22, 1707, Admiral Sir Clowdisley Shovel sailed his fleet, returning from a successful engagement with the French, into 'dirty weather'.  When a sailor reported that his private calculations indicated that the ships were badly out of position, Shovel had him hung because such private navigation was highly illegal, the ships proceeded to wreck themselves upon the reefs of the Scilly Isles and 2000 men were lost.  Largely as a result of this disaster, the British Parliament, under Queen Anne, passed the British Longitude Act of 1714, with a prize of 20,000 english pounds (roughly $12 million today) for anyone that could provide longitude to an accuracy of 1/2 degree.  As Sobel explains, latitude is fixed by the physical world and relatively easy to determine, but longitude is based on a political calculation, where to place the starting point, and requires that you be able to tell the time where you are and also at that starting point.  The problem of keeping accurate time on board ship was so daunting that as august a personage as Isaac Newton did not think the problem was solvable.

Sobel's thrilling story of how a simple English "mechanic" overcame the many physical challenges and the equally forbidding political problems (the members of the Longitude board frowned upon mere clock makers and expected an astronomer to win the prize) to finally win the prize after 40 years of effort, makes for fascinating reading.  It is a book which will remind you of the importance of the individual in history.


Grade: (A-)


See also:

Book-related and General Links:
    -Booknotes with Dava Sobel (C-SPAN)
    -INTERVIEW: Real Audio of interview with Noah Adams (NPR)
    -NOVA Online: The Search for Longitude
    -Carl Sagan: Still Taking Us to the Stars (Dava Sobel, Discovery Online)
    -REVIEW: The Biggest Peril to Ships for Most of History (Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: from Texas Sailing News
    -REVIEW: of Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel (Jan Zita Grover, Hungry Mind Review)

    -A Guide to Maritime History Information on the Internet