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The International Writers Magazine: Review

Longtitude by Dava Sobel
• John M. Edwards review
Throughout the ages, explorers from Vasco de Gama to Balboa struggled with the “longitude problem.” Without an accurate method of calculating the longitude, navigators were literally lost at sea. The great nineteenth-century scientists and statesmen, including Sir Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley (of comet fame), were stumped.


If you missed it the first time it came around, Longitude (Walker and Company), by former science reporter for The New York Times, Dava Sobel, is not only a popular history of astronomy, navigation, and clockmaking, but a dramatic tale of the race to rule the waves and beat the clock for the longitude lotto.

Prompted by a series of naval disasters, in 1714 the British Parliament announced a jackpot worth an equivalent $12 million in todays money for a “practicable and useful” means of determining the longitude. Sobel suggests that the catalyst for all great discoveries is not curiosity but greed.

Happening onto the sweepstakes is one John Harrison, an uneducated self-taught clockmaker and country bumpkin who battled the greatest minds of his day and stood them on his ears. While respectable scientists scanned the heavens in their Ivory Towers for a “clockwork universe,” Harrison landed on a solution closer to home, connecting the dots on a 3D globe. After 40 years of dogged determinism he perfected his friction-free chronometer—the first portable precision timepiece. Hence, Harrison literally held the whole world in his hands.

Sobel turns back time to a fantastical stage full of intransigent academics, greedy pretenders, and harebrained schemers. But the real story is the Mozart-Salieri-like rivalry between Harrison and his archrival archivist, Royal Astronomer Neville Maskelyne, who proves a formidable villain, there at every milepost to sabotage Harrison’s claims. But Harrison’s chronometers go on to guide some of the world’s greatest explorers (Cook, Bligh, Darwin) and pay off in British primacy over the high seas.
As Sobel concludes, “[Harrison] wrested the world’s whereabouts from the stars, and locked the secret in a pocket watch.”
© John M. Edwards, June 2013

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