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.
Dava Sobel’s Longitude tells the story of how 18th-century scientist and clockmaker William Harrison solved one of the most perplexing problems of history–determining east-west location at sea. This lush, colorfully illustrated edition adds lots of pictures to the story, giving readers a more satisfying sense of the times, the players, and the puzzle. This was no obscure, curious difficulty–without longitude, ships often found themselves so far off course that sailors would starve or die of scurvy before they could reach port. When a nationally-sponsored contest offered a hefty cash prize to the person who could develop a method to accurately determine longitude, the race was on. In the end, the battle of accuracy–and wills–fought between Harrison and arch-rival Maskelyne was ruthless and dramatic, worthy of a Hollywood feature film. Longitude‘s story is surprising and fascinating, offering a window into the past, before Global Positioning Satellites made it look easy. ~ Therese Littleton