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

3.96  ·  Rating details ·  58,611 ratings  ·  2,719 reviews
Anyone alive in the eighteenth century would have known that "the longitude problem" was the thorniest scientific dilemma of the day—and had been for centuries. Lacking the ability to measure their longitude, sailors throughout the great ages of exploration had been literally lost at sea as soon as they lost sight of land. Thousands of lives, and the increasing fortunes of ...more
Hardcover, 192 pages
Published October 1st 2005 by Walker Books (first published October 19th 1995)
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David Kay Just finished it and really enjoyed it. It would do well to be required reading in our schools actually as there's so much to be gained in perspective…moreJust finished it and really enjoyed it. It would do well to be required reading in our schools actually as there's so much to be gained in perspective of application of science and history. (less)
Nathan Yes, it is non-fiction. Pretty much everything in the book is based on researched facts and records. It is a very goo read.

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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
Nov 11, 2016 rated it really liked it
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
Pramod Nair
Aug 08, 2015 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
Philip Allan
Oct 10, 2019 rated it really liked it
Longitude is a remarkable achievement. The recipe for sales success in international book sales rarely contains such unpromising ingredients as these – an obsessive carpenter’s son from Yorkshire, an intractable navigational problem and a lot of clocks. Yet Longitude succeeds in weaving a narrative full of clashing of ideas, intriguing personalities, bizarre anecdotes and at its heart a tale of the little guy challenging the Establishment.

The story is one that has long been familiar to both nava
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:

Joy D
Non-fiction about the quest to develop a reliable method for measuring longitude. The first several chapters describe the difficulties encountered by ships attempting to navigate solely based on latitude. The focus then shifts to a biography of John Harrison, the 18th century clockmaker who attempted to solve this problem based on timekeeping. It also describes his primary competitor and adversary, Nevil Maskelyne, who was keen on proving that the best approach involved astronomical readings. Th ...more
William T.
Jan 05, 2009 rated it it was ok
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Aug 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An amazing book following the attempts to solve the longitudinal navigation problems. The author’s research covered several hundred years of partial success and many failures. Especially interesting was the English contest for solving the problem. An amazing man, John Harrison, worked tirelessly to conquer the problem. The trials of Harrison, and the jealously of others in his attempts made for a good story.. This genius is credited with producing the first marine machine to accurately calculate ...more
Mar 20, 2010 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
Clif Hostetler
Mar 31, 2015 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
"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
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
J.Aleksandr Wootton
May 07, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: undergrad, best-of
Stellar nonfiction, exceptionally well-written.
Technical enough to satisfy those who want the details; lucid enough for the non-technical to comprehend the central problem and its attempted solutions; engaging enough to draw in all kinds of readers. This book could get practically anyone excited about applied science through real-world problem solving.
Kara 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
Camelia Rose
Sep 06, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: science, history
I remember visiting Royal Museums Greenwich in London with my children several years ago. We marveled at the big, intricate perpetually ticking H1, H2 and H3, and ignored the small, silent, seemingly nondescript H4, just like the tourists Dava Sobel noticed in her book. Now I wish I have had a closer look at H4, the actual prize-winning marine timekeeper made by the lone genius John Harrison.

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time is a we
Michael Burnam-Fink
Jul 14, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2019, history
Longitude is a sheer delight of a popular history of technology. Up until the 18th century, half of navigation was done by chance. Finding latitude is easy, simply take the angle between the horizon of the sun at noon or Polaris at night, adjust for the date, and you know where you are relative to the equator. But longitude is a different matter. Ships wandered in the great oceans, crews riddled with scurvy, or crashed into rising cliffs. The British government offered a prize of 20,000 Pounds, ...more
Aug 17, 2012 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
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 22, 2015 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
Simon Clark
Apr 06, 2016 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
Chris Steeden
Thank you to my daughter who bought this for me at her school’s book sale. 😊

‘As time passed and no method proved successful, the search for a solution to the longitude problem assumed legendary proportions, on a par with discovering the Fountain of Youth, the secret of perpetual motion, or the formula for transforming lead into gold.’

Sobel goes over the shipwrecks that possibly would not have happened if the method of calculating longitude was around to help them navigate the oceans. For the cap
Knowlton Murphy
Mar 23, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Really fun! Also, really short! I listened to a quarter of it or so on audio while running errands and walking around the hospital in a bit of a daze as my latest little boy was born, so I know I missed some details in the beginning. Still really great though! Sobel does a really good job of bringing her material to life and communicating information in a delightful way, and hearing Neil Armstrong's Intro was pretty cool, too.
Michael Huang
Mar 02, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
When my dad went to college back in 1958, my grandma spent a small fortune to buy a 17-jewel (or was it 11?) Swiss wrist watch for him. That thing will probably be off only a couple of minutes a year. A few years back, I gave him a different watch, a solar-powered so-called atomic watch which is really a quartz watch that can synchronize to real atomic clocks through broadcast towers on three (or was it 4) continents. Adjusted for inflation, this second watch is probably cheaper. The rate of tec ...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
Oct 29, 2008 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
Nov 17, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
Jun 03, 2007 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
Jul 09, 2013 rated it really liked it
I can't remember if I read the book first or saw the television series first, but some combination of the two was like a long, calm, very safe ocean voyage.
In my 4-star review of the original Longitude, I said that "my sole complaint is that the book would have really benefited from illustrations" - and now here it is! So I really have to give this the full 5-stars based on that alone.

However, THAT SAID...maybe 180 illustrations (Sobel's total as noted in the introduction; I didn't count them) is a few too many? There are pictures on nearly every page, and while it makes for a much more enjoyable overall experience, one quickly notes that the pictu
Adam Wiggins
Jun 17, 2013 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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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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It’s time to turn your attention to something dark and twisty, to a story (or two or three) so engaging, the pages just fly by. In short, it’s...
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“He wrested the world's whereabouts from the stars, and locked the secret in a pocket watch.” 20 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.” 11 likes
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