Steve Jones'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
Jan 30, 2012

really liked it
Read on January 30, 2012

I saw a few books for free on Amazon by Dava Sobel, and they were highly rated, so I grabbed them. One was Longitude, which caught my eye as an interesting problem to solve. I had assumed that sailors had used sextants for hundreds or even thousands of years to calculate their positions at sea. Knowing how to get their latitude and longitude from the stars. However that’s not the case. It wasn’t until the late 1700s that they had a reliable way to do this.

This book goes through the various problems with calculating longitude, and the solutions proposed. It talks about the losses and problems sailors had, and the large government prizes offered for a solution, primarily from the English government. Latitude is easy to calculate, but longitude isn’t, something I’d never thought about.

The book talks about a few ways people attempted, primarily though astronomy, but then the one way that makes sense and works better, using a watch. Apparently the clockmakers hadn’t been able to build a decent clock until one many, not even a clockmaker by trade, built a precise timekeeper. He spent 40 years building better ones, and eventually claiming part of the English prize.

It’s an interesting story, intellectually, and has a lot of history in there. However the writing isn’t great. Sobel doesn’t weave a dramatic or captivating tale, and somewhat misleads us with the title. The book drags on a bit, without as much intrigue and suspense as I thought it might have. Maybe I’m not enough of a history buff, but while I enjoyed the book, I didn’t think it was great.

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