Book review: Dava Sobel’s “Longitude”

After reading Douglas Hunter’s book “Half Moon”, of course the next book simply had to be about longitude. Thanks to an impressive BBC television documentary seen a few years ago, the story was more or less familiar. So with the help of the internet, it was not difficult to find the book on which this documentary was partly based.

Dava Sobel’s “Longitude, The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time” was first published in 1995. Her book tells the story of a man who dedicated his life to solving a scientific problem. It is upsetting to read how he was treated.

Longitude book coverIn fifteen chapters and about 180 pages, this slim book’s first edition not only tells a story of a lone genius. On the first few pages, Dava Sobel explains her fascination with the subject. In ensuing chapters she deals with the history of latitude and longitude. As my brain goes on the blink the moment anything vaguely mathematical turns up, her explanations about calculations and similar background information did not land. But fortunately, mathematical and technical information is kept to the bare minimum. Ms Sobel concentrates on telling a fascinating history.

Ptolemy is mentioned, as well as Columbus, Galileo, Gemma Frisius and many others. As Douglas Hunter mentions in his book “Half Moon” and Dava Sobel reminds us: “ … every great captain in the Age of Exploration became lost at sea despite the best available charts and compasses. … they all got where they were going willy-nilly, by forces attributed to good luck or the grace of God.”(p. 6) She then goes into the accident of October 22, 1707 which cost about 2000 people their lives and led to an Act of Parliament and a “King’s Ransom” to be awarded to any person who solved the problem of establishing longitude at sea.

The self-educated watchmaker John Harrison solved the problem, but it took decades and a king’s intervention, for him to be awarded the money. Yet even King George could not force the committee to officially acknowledge John Harrison had solved the problem. Ms Sobel cites from historical documents to show this.

The spiteful behaviour of university educated men, some of whom promoted their own theories or methods and were after the money themselves though officially barred from taking part in the quest as they were part of the jury – it needs to be read to be believed. These men changed the rules; even ensured new Acts of Parliament were passed to block Harrison from being awarded the prize. These historical events taking place in the 18th century, they did stop short of burning him.

One of John Harrison’s main opponents was Reverend Nevil Maskelyne. Harrison was forced to hand over his prototypes to him. Even this was not enough, for the clocks and watch were taken apart, tampered with to ensure they did not work properly, even partly destroyed. This Reverend was not above a personal witch-hunt.

Ms Sobel presumes part of the problem was Harrison being self-educated. Reading chapter seven, one does wonder where, when, and how he learned to make watches. For his carpenter father taught John Harrison carpentry. To read that Harrison’s first clock is nearly completely made of wood – and still working – is fascinating. The carpenter watch-maker was not even twenty years old, when he created it and combined his knowledge of wood with his knowledge of how to make a clock.

Ms Sobel mentions the other wooden clocks he built after this one. They include a tower clock created for Sir Charles Pelham in 1722. It also still works and stands in Brocklesby Park.

Chronometer H4

Harrison’s chronometer can be admired in Greenwich

Harrison moved to London. He – later assisted by his son – created several working prototypes to solve the longitude problem. These were no longer mostly of wood, but also did contain ingenious solutions.

When Harrison presented his naval chronometer the Watch, the Board of Longitude prohibited it to be taken along a sea voyage. Instead the K1, a spin-off and created by fellow watchmaker mr Kendall, accompanied Captain James Cook on his second voyage.

The book’s last two chapters describe how watchmakers used Harrison’s knowledge and information to mass-produce watches. The book concludes with Greenwich Mean Time, the Meridian, and what happened to Harrison’s confiscated prototypes. When they were finally unearthed, Lieutenant Commander Rupert T. Gould lovingly restored them. If you are in the neighbourhood of Greenwich, why not admire them at the Royal Museums there?

Though the book’s scientific subject seems off-putting, don’t be! This book is a highly readable history of how a scientific problem was solved, as well as a beautiful biography of John “Longitude” Harrison. Though Reverend Maskelyne did his utmost to ensure nobody would remember John Harrison, Dava Sobel’s book ensures the true story of this lone genius is available for everybody as an excellent read.

“Longitude”, Dava Sobel, pp 184, hard cover, Fourth Estate, London, first published 1996; kindle and 2005 paperback edition available through Amazon
Royal Museums Greenwich
Dava Sobel’s Blog


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