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

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3.94  ·  Rating Details  ·  37,800 Ratings  ·  1,626 Reviews
On its 10th anniversary, a gift edition of this classic book, with a forward by one of history's greatest explorers, and eight pages of color illustrations.

Anyone alive in the eighteeth century would have known that "the logitude problem" was the thorniest scientific dilemma of the day--and had been for centuries. Lacking the ability to measure their longitude, sailors thr
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Hardcover, 192 pages
Published October 1st 2005 by Walker Books (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)

Community Reviews

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Pramod Nair
Aug 10, 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
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Peter
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
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Kathleen
"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
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Mahlon
Apr 07, 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
Silvanna
Oct 22, 2015 Silvanna rated it it was amazing
An amazing book.
Oscar
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
William T.
Jan 05, 2009 William T. rated it it was ok
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Clif Hostetler
Mar 31, 2015 Clif Hostetler rated it really liked it
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
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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
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Reenie
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
Simon Clark
Apr 06, 2016 Simon Clark rated it liked it
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
David
Oct 29, 2008 David rated it really liked it
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
Jeanette
Nov 18, 2015 Jeanette rated it liked it
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
Miranda Davis
Jan 07, 2013 Miranda Davis rated it it was amazing
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
GoldGato
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
Baal Of
Mar 14, 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
Jim
Jan 29, 2016 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
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Adam Wiggins
Nov 22, 2015 Adam Wiggins rated it it was amazing
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
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Paul
Aug 21, 2013 Paul rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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Emily
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
Sophie Schiller
Jun 18, 2013 Sophie Schiller rated it it was amazing
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
Ken-ichi
Oct 03, 2009 Ken-ichi rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: learning
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
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Erin
Mar 14, 2016 Erin rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Short, fascinating, and utterly charming. File this under “The wonders of exploration and human invention” meets “the quirks, foibles, and little-known backstories of history.” Dava Sobel weaves a surprisingly beautiful tale that was a joy to read.

“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 w
...more
Elaine
Dec 04, 2008 Elaine rated it really liked it
Shelves: december, 2008
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.
Patricia
I first read this book when it was published in the mid-1990s and have just re-read it to add more depth to my knowledge of ancient maps. It is an excellent book to read in conjunction with A History of the World in Twelve Maps, especially for those seeking to understand why so many pre-18C regional and global maps misrepresented distances and relative sizes--it was the longitude problem.

While a position's latitude can be identified by anyone who understands that at the equator the sun, moon and
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Anna-Maria Crum
Aug 06, 2013 Anna-Maria Crum rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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John Sutherland
Jun 17, 2012 John Sutherland rated it it was amazing
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
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Collin Winter
Mar 03, 2013 Collin Winter rated it liked it
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
Laala Alghata
May 16, 2011 Laala Alghata rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
“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
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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
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A Million More Pages: Longitude: Feb 18 5 16 Mar 01, 2015 12:09AM  
Want to know more? 9 132 Oct 24, 2014 08:49AM  
Literally Geeky: Longitude - Your Thoughts 14 16 Sep 13, 2014 09:19PM  
Madison Mega-Mara...: A nice non-fiction read 1 7 May 23, 2012 01:42PM  
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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.” 6 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.” 2 likes
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