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

3.93 of 5 stars 3.93  ·  rating details  ·  29,314 ratings  ·  1,277 reviews
A fully illustrated edition of the international best-seller Longitude.

The Illustrated Longitude recounts in words and images the epic quest to solve the greatest scientific problem of the eighteenth and three prior centuries: determining how a captain could pinpoint his ship's location at sea. All too often throughout the ages of exploration, voyages ended in disaster whe
Paperback, 224 pages
Published January 1st 2003 by Walker & Company (first published 1995)
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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
Apr 07, 2010 Mahlon rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  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
William T.
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
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
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
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
Miranda Davis
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
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
Paul Cheney
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
Jun 03, 2007 Emily rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  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
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
Old review from 2005.

Since my fondest wish is to sail the high seas of the 19th century, I need to learn how to find myself without GPS. I also love this cover: a violent sea dashing ships to splinters, and, from on high, a man, in a wig, with a clock, come to deliver the poor dogs from ignorance. Interesting story, filled with many an odd character. Made me want an olde time pocket watch. I was actually constantly thinking of Hicksville while I was reading this book, and the Captain Cook / Hone
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
A short little history of the various attempts to solve the longitude problem. I have encountered this same story briefly before in a book I read last year, The Mapmakers by by John Noble Wilford, but this book focuses more exclusively on John Harrison and his battle for getting his highly accurate chronometers accepted by the English Parliament as an acceptable method for determining longitude.
Anna-Maria Crum
This is the type of nonfiction I love. It's all about the people who made history and not just a recitation of dates and facts. The "Illustrated" version of this book included plenty of color images, paintings, maps, etc. I enjoyed seeing portraits of the people involved in finding the answer to the puzzle of determining an accurate reading for longitude.

I had known it was a problem but I hadn't realize what a terrible danger it was for ships not to know the exact reading for it. I assumed that
John Sutherland
Outstandingly well written. As a Yorkshireman myself, I felt a kinship with Harrison, a Yorkshire carpenter who did what the best watchmakers of his day could not do; craft a watch that would not significantly lose time when subjected to the rigors of an extended ocean voyage.
The trick to surviving a long ocean voyage, was to know your exact longitude. Latitude was straightforward, but without knowing time accurately, coupled with other observations, your estimate of longitude could be very much
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
I dunno. I feel like I was missing something. It felt geeky, but it didn't help me feel like I really learned anything. It's short, but it took me a long time to read. Maybe better editing would have helped Sobol focus on what to explain more carefully, and what to discuss concisely.

I did like this quote: "Timepieces don't really keep time. They just keep up with it, if they're able."

And I did like the point about the moon's movement. The thing is, I've been feeling a sense of unease that I have
Laala Alghata
“He wrestled the world’s whereabouts from the stars, and locked the secret in a pocket watch.” — Dava Sobel, Longitude

This book came as part of a set of nonfiction I’d bought, and to be honest, I doubt I would have heard of it (at least at the point at which I read it) otherwise. It chronicles the longitude problem and the inspiring tale of John Harrison. It’s completely engrossing. It’s simple enough to explain — back in C17, sailors had tremendous difficulty with navigation. They could easily
Hawk Ostrie
This book tells a true story of longitude. The problem was that it was very difficult to figure out the longitude of the position a person was in. Many people tried many solutions and the book covers a lot of people and their mostly impractical solutions. Most didn't work. The two main solutions that were looked for we're a clock that would work on a ship in changing waters, temperatures, pressures, etc. or signs from the sky. The clock turned. Out to be more practical and eventually the book fo ...more
In this day of GPS and crystal-clear satellite images on Google Maps, it's hard to imagine an era when people didn't know where they were or where they were going. I had no idea that even as late as the 17th century, there was no way to measure longitude (latitude was not a problem) and it makes the success of the preceding maritime explorers all the more amazing.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and unlike The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science,
The most interesting part of this book is its history lesson: until the mid-1700s, the most difficult scientific problem in centuries of seafaring was the inability to measure longitude. Without knowing longitude, sailors had no reliable way of knowing where they were, resulting in lives, ships, and fortunes routinely lost at sea. So great was the need for a solution that the English parliament put up a bounty of £ 20,000 (multi-million dollars in today’s currency) for anyone who could solve the ...more
Jun 29, 2007 Stephanie rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: historians
Again, a great book you can learn a lot from. Who has ever really thought about what effect the lack of a way to find longitude caused for sailors - first chapter you read about one ship that fought a storm for two months, thought they were 200 miles west of where they were, sailed north and then west, gave up after 4 days and sailed east only to realize a week later that they were within an hour of thier destination before they turned around. I love the connections this book makes- because they ...more
Sundar Raj
Wow, we take too many things for granted. In this age of modern computing, we are living a high life that we don't have time to appreciate what a problem like longitude means really. Now it may be just reduced to numbers(now,your mobile GPS can nail down your position within couple of feet of accuracy), but it made the difference between life and death then.
Longitude is a very interesting book about how big a problem of finding one's longitude posed, especially in seas in the pre modern era.B
A terrific little book. I really enjoyed Dava Sobel's writing which is sparse, but evocative. I found myself rooting for the lowly clockmaker and horrified when he was robbed for so many years of his prize. Outside of the personal story, (which is engrossing) the information about the problem of longitude was fascinating. It really makes you think about all of the things that science and mathematics have given us, that we take for granted.
Very interesting, surprisingly engrossing, and quite readable--I really enjoyed this book. I felt like I had learned a lot by the time I finished it, and not just about longitude--it also incorporates history, ships, sailing, navigation, astronomy, and, of course, the mechanics of clockworks. The poems and quotes that open each chapter were very fitting and some of them were quite beautiful.

Thanks to Kathryn for the recommendation!
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
"Longitude" is an enjoyable, easy-to-read and understand overview of the events surrounding "the longitude problem," including the various solutions proposed, the political and scientific rivalry involved in the quest for the prize, and the scientific advances that occurred in pursuit of the solution.

The book doesn't really go into depth on how the clock was created. Apparently no one really knows how John Harrison solved each challenge in keeping perfect time while at sea. But we're told the so
Vince Rioux
This is a great book for the summer, as it is a short read and covers the historic effort to claim the £20,000 prize offered by the British Parliament for a simple and practical method of determining longitude on the sea. As Brittania expanded her maritime trade, privateering, and naval conflicts in the 18th century, Parliament established the Longitude Act of 1714, establishing a board to examine the problem and review submissions from innovative citizens. Too many ships were being lost due to ...more
This brief and popular history of the search for a practical method of finding a ship’s longitude focuses on the life and work of a self-taught clockmaker from Yorkshire named John Harrison (24 March 1698-24 March 1776). Even well past the great age of maritime discovery, there was no credible way for a mariner to know his longitude; latitude was easily computed through celestial observa- tion, but longitude meant time: as the earth spins through its twenty-four hour day, position relative to so ...more
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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
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“He wrested the world's whereabouts from the stars, and locked the secret in a pocket watch.” 3 likes
“Any clock that can track this sideral schedule proves itself as perfect as God's magnificent clockwork.

Dava Sobel”
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