Vince Rioux's Reviews > Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

Longitude by Dava Sobel
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's review
Jul 30, 2011

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 the inability to accurately reckon a position east or west of a known point, like the ship's location. Isaac Newton was on this board, as were three different Royal Astronomers over time. The real story is about the struggle that an inspired and informally educated carpenter-cum-watchmaker had with an obstinate and politically hostile contingency of astronomers. They were convinced that no mechanical solution could adequately or viably compete with the 'universal' clock offered by the stars. John Harrison successfully met the stringent criteria of finding longitude to an accuracy of 30 miles after a six week voyage to the West Indies. He created 5 models of his chronometer over sixty years, each one performing better than the previous; each performing better than the astronomers' alternatives. It's a classic tale of the often painful pace of the evolution of ideas in the face entrenched assumptions.
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