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Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

3.95  ·  Rating Details ·  41,945 Ratings  ·  1,877 Reviews
hardback book
Hardcover, UK Edition, 184 pages
Published 1996 by Fourth Estate (first published 1995)
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G K Yes, I read it about 3 weeks ago and loved, loved, loved it. The story was fascinating, expecially about all the shenanigans that went on by the…moreYes, I read it about 3 weeks ago and loved, loved, loved it. The story was fascinating, expecially about all the shenanigans that went on by the supposed 'lntelligensia' to keep the the true discoverer of how to figure a ship's longitude from getting the recognition that was his due. Guess nothing much has changed in the past few centuries (wide grin here). (less)
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Pramod Nair
Aug 08, 2015 Pramod Nair rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Longitude from Dava Sobel is a fascinating account of how a virtually unknown watchmaker named John Harrison conquered one of the oldest and thorniest problems surrounding the ocean voyages - the problem of accurately measuring longitude -, which stumped even the best of scientific minds for centuries.

A fascinating problem

It was Ptolemy in ‘Geographia’, written in the 2nd century, who contributed the concept of a co-ordinate system based on the imaginary lines of latitude and longitude, for acc
I first read Longitude, by Dava Sobel, just after I finished high school, and I devoured it in a sitting or two. It was the first non-fiction book, I think, that I really couldn't put down.

The (true) story is great: legendary historical figures like Isaac Newton, Galileo, James Cook, King George III; scientific conundrums; innovative engineering; a ransom of millions at stake; and a humble, lone man competing against oppressive and manipulative big-wigs.

Background: Latitude lines are the parall
Really lovely and very interesting reading. Everybody knows about longitude but I guess not so many know the struggles and fights behind the tries to 'conquer' it, including myself.

John Harrison was a genius of his times; beside the fact that he produced the first accurate marine watches for calculating longitude, his pieces are works of art:





And the masterpiece, H4, completed in 1759:

Interesting story. Reasonably written. Possibly a model for a certain kind of non-fiction book, the type with very long sub-titles that are meant to cast light on a very short main title, the whole presumably being the original elevator pitch that the author made to the publisher. This one is all about the late 18th century watch maker, John Harrison, who builds a series of highly accurate watches in an attempt to win a prize for a device to be able to establish longitude at sea. Nice, does what ...more
"The British Parliament, in its famed Longitude Act of 1714, set the highest bounty of all, naming a prize equal to a king’s ransom (several million dollars in today’s currency) for a “Practicable and Useful” means of determining longitude.”

I read this historical and biographical account in one evening. It's not without flaws, but I was fascinated and gave it 5 stars for holding my attention in a topic I rarely read about, where science, math, politics, and culture intersect with astronomical a
Mar 20, 2010 Mahlon rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: People who like science, or nautical themes
Recommended to Mahlon by: A&E
Shelves: read-2010
In Longitude, Dava Sobel chronicles the world's quest to tame time. In 1714, the English Parliament passed the longitude act. It established the Board of Longitude and offered a prize of 20,000 pounds to anyone who could find a simple and practical method for the precise determination of a ship's longitude. In particular Sobel highlights John Harrison's pursuit of the prize. She traces the arc of his career, and details the innovations of each of his subsequent entries (H1-H5) Unfortunately, eve ...more
Oct 22, 2015 Silvanna rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An amazing book.
William T.
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Nov 11, 2016 Max rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
On October 22, 1707 four English warships crashed into the rocks of the Scilly Isles southwest of England. They quickly sank killing 2,000 men. The cause of this catastrophe was the inability to determine longitude, a problem that beset mariners everywhere. In 1714 the British Parliament set a £20,000 reward for whoever could solve the problem. The Board of Longitude, which would be primarily comprised of astronomers, was set up to award the money. To win the full prize, the method or device had ...more
La Historia está llena de pequeños descubrimientos capaces de cambiar el mundo. Aunque debería decir pequeños vistos desde nuestros días. Este es el caso de la longitud, es decir, esas líneas imaginarias que trazan nuestro planeta desde los polos, dividiéndolo en veinticuatro partes iguales. La longitud era fundamental en tierra firme para trazar mapas lo más exactos posibles, pero sobre todo era esencial para la navegación. El mundo era un gran desconocido cuyos horizontes estaban todavía por d ...more
Clif Hostetler
Mar 31, 2015 Clif Hostetler rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
I was reminded of this book today because in was on the PageADay Book Lover's Calendar for 3-31-2015. I read it back in the year 2000(+-). I have favorable recollections of the book, and I found it to be in interesting story. The following short review is copied from the calendar.

Anyone with an interest in history or things maritime should consider Longitude," said USA Today of this bestseller. Sobel describes 18th-century clockmaker John Harrison's struggle to invent an accurate chronometer, wh
Ben Babcock
I take GPS for granted. I don’t use it that much personally, because I don’t tend to go anywhere, but I’m sure all this technology I love to use makes use of GPS. Thanks to GPS, we can forget that calculating longitude without the help of a network of satellites is difficult and requires great mathematical and engineering expertise. GPS might not be great at giving directions, but that doesn’t mean you’re lost.

In the days—centuries—prior to GPS, you could get lost. Really lost. I’m not sure how
As far as popular science writing, or popular history of science writing (take your pick) goes, I've read better books. This is a book about a self-taught village clock-maker who created a whole new breed of amazingly precise chronometers, which enable the accurate measurement of longitude, and the fight he had with astronomers to get his solution recognised (and rewarded). High stakes (both in terms of the potential benefits to be had from being able to use longitude, and in terms of the reward ...more
Oct 29, 2008 David rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I'm not quite sure how to classify this book - history, biography, scientific treatise. But I found it intriguing and educational. It had never occurred to me how different latitude and longitude are. Since ancient times, seafarers had understood how to measure latitude (concentric circles parallel to the equator) based on the angle of the sun and the time of year. But longitude (circles which intersect at each pole - used to measure east/west distance) is much more of a challenge. Determining a ...more
Miranda Davis
Jan 06, 2013 Miranda Davis rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This little book tells the story of how inventors attempted to solve the vexing problem of obtaining a critical part in calculating longitude -- having a reliable timepiece providing accurate, standardized time on the sea. It's a surprisingly exciting tale: there was a contest, a rich reward and a deadline for entries. Before this problem was solved, sailors could calculate latitude by the stars but longitude required consistent, reliable timekeeping in all ocean conditions from one fixed point. ...more
Interesting review of the tale toward discovering a correct way to measure longitude for a ship at sea. It's short and informative but actually quite on the dry side. Not told in a fictionalized sense at all, but more a recital of fact, placements, and progression. The clock maker who succeeded with that bio-metal strip that did not alter the time by expansion or shrinking of the components became part of the key. As most innovation of great magnitude, it was a self-appointed task, completely by ...more
Simon Clark
Maybe Longitude suffered by comparison with my previous read, Amir Alexander's Infinitesimal, but this book felt very light and frothy. I get that Dava Sobel was writing for a general audience and that I'm a scientist by training, but I would have really appreciated a few more sources or direct quotes from source texts and letters to connect with the historical figures described. As it was it very much felt like a summary or an abstract rather than the meat of a true historical account, with a s ...more
He was one of just two survivors who washed ashore, after their fleet hit the rocks of Scilly and more than two thousand men went to their watery graves in just minutes. He was barely conscious but alive. He was Sir Clowdisley, the admiral of the tragic fleet, and he had mistakenly steered his ships to disaster. One of his sailors tried to call attention to the upcoming catastrophe...but was immediately hanged. Inferior seamen were not allowed to keep their own calculations of maritime reckoning ...more
Nadine Jones

Time is to clock as mind is to brain. The clock or watch somehow contains the time. And yet time refuses to be bottled up like a genie stuffed in a lamp. Whether it flows as sand or turns on wheels within wheels, time escapes irretrievably, while we watch.

If you read Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, and are eager for more, Longitude will be right up your alley. (I've read so many "history of science" type books, I'm thinking I should create a GR shelf just for them.) A lot of the
Oct 26, 2014 Jim rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This little book is a gem. Less than 200 pages but a fascinating story. It is almost unfathomable in this age when it seems that practically everyone has a GPS device in their car, an iPhone, and a personal computer that there was a time when if you set sail you depended on luck or the grace of God to arrive at your destination once you were out of sight of land. All the explorers of the age, Babloa; Magellan; Drake, "all got where they were going willy-nilly".

In the 18th century "the wealth of
Aug 17, 2012 Paul rated it liked it
Shelves: books-read-2013
Finding the latitude in the 17th century was straightforward, but finding the longitude was extremely difficult. This compromised the safety of all seafarers, and in one particular incident around 200 lives were lost of the Isles of Scilly.

The admiralty of the day decided to set up a Longitude board and offer a prize to the inventor of a method to reliably calculate the longitude of a vessel. Various methods were tried, including one that took lunar sightings developed by Nevil Maskelyne.

Enter J
Adam Wiggins
Some people really geek out on the history of science and innovation, especially that magical era at the dawn of the age of reason and the industrial revolution. I'm that sort of geek, so this book was just perfect for me.

The longitude problem was one of the biggest scientific problems facing humanity in the early 1700s. The British government posted a large reward — the equivalent of millions of dollars. The Longitude prize was a forerunner to modern innovation prizes like the X Prize for launc
Jun 03, 2007 Emily rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: History-of-science and gadget geeks
Shelves: non-fiction
To quote an esteemed LC history professor on the technical difficulties of pre-modern navigational technology: "Nowadays, you'd refer to that as being lost. But they actually thought they could get somewhere." Shortly after people discovered that the world was round and wanted to sail around it, they realized that they had no way of telling how far they'd gone and how close they were to where they wanted to be, as opposed to how close they were to the Bermuda Triangle, for example, or the giant ...more
Oct 23, 2015 James rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A great little read - I was inspired to read this one after being lucky enough to see the longitude exhibit and the Harrison clocks at the Greenwich Observatory a couple of years ago (only just got around to reading the book).

It's a great story and very well told - I mistakenly thought this was going to be a dramatisation / fictionalisation of the story - but it's not, it sticks purely to the historical facts.

Very well written and constructed - for anyone with even the vaguest of interest in the
Baal Of
Mar 10, 2016 Baal Of rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A short and entertaining history of the development of a sea-worthy clock which could be used to calculate longitude. Well written, with a story-like narrative, and lots of political intrigue. Yet another book that shows how science can be subverted by ideology, and how wealth and privilege can allow someone to remain in a position of power despite a clear conflict of interest. I would have liked a bit more science, and more detail on the technological innovations that Harrison and other accompl ...more
Sophie Schiller
Longitude tells the incredible story of John Harrison, an 18th century clock maker who entered into a contest to create the first clock (chronometer) capable of withstanding the rigors of a sea voyage so that mariners could determine their correct longitude at sea. When the organizers of the contest balked at awarding Harrison the prize money, he took his fight to court. A spellbinding tale that reads more like a suspense thriller. Great for lovers of science, history, sea adventures, and underd ...more
The book contains a lot of interesting information, and I am glad I read it. I enjoyed the first half. At some point, though, I got tired of reading about how unfairly Harrison was treated in his efforts to claim the longitude prize. The last part of the book seemed to drag, for me.
The book really made me empathise with the woes that John Harrison was going through in his dealings with the Board of Longitude, especially with Nevil Maskelyne. The history of time keeping in sea as well as the history of the time keeper in land does give a different picture of the 17th and 18th centuries in stark contrast with the 21st century. Yet how far science and technology have took us forward today really made me to contemplate upon the words Newton had once said "If I have seen furthe ...more
Collin Winter
I had gotten glowing recommendations for this book, but it left me disappointed. For a book about the history of technology, there's precious little technology in the book: Harrison's marine chronometers are repeatedly praised, but there's little in the way of description of how they work, or why they represented such an advance in clockmaking. Sobel will frequently describe a piece of clockwork, then say that Harrison didn't or couldn't use it in his marine timepieces, but without ever saying w ...more
Nov 17, 2008 Eric_W rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Sobel ranks right up there with Mark Kurlansky for writing detailed, fascinating accounts of historical technology. Calculating longitude had bedeviled mariners for centuries. To do so required an extremely accurate timepiece.

John Harrison thought he could solve the problem. The book is a nice combination of science and biography. It reminded me of another similar work Noble Obsession Charles Goodyear, Thomas Hancock, and the Race to Unlock the Greatest Industrial Secret of the Nineteenth Centur
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Dava Sobel is an accomplished writer of popular expositions of scientific topics. A 1964 graduate of the Bronx High School of Science, Ms. Sobel attended Antioch College and the City College of New York before receiving her bachelor of arts degree from the State University of New York at Binghamton in 1969. She holds honorary doctor of letters degrees from the University of Bath, in England, and M ...more
More about Dava Sobel...

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“He wrested the world's whereabouts from the stars, and locked the secret in a pocket watch.” 13 likes
“Time is to clock as mind is to brain. The clock or watch somehow contains the time. And yet time refuses to be bottled up like a genie stuffed in a lamp. Whether it flows as sand or turns on wheels within wheels, time escapes irretrievably, while we watch. Even when the bulbs of the hourglass shatter, when darkness withholds the shadow from the sundial, when the mainspring winds down so far that the clock hands hold still as death, time itself keeps on. The most we can hope a watch to do is mark that progress. And since time sets its own tempo, like a heartbeat or an ebb tide, timepieces don't really keep time. They just keep up with it, if they're able.” 8 likes
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