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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 ·  67,245 ratings  ·  3,141 reviews
"Longitude" is the dramatic human story of an epic scientific quest. The "longitude problem" was the thorniest dilemma of the eighteenth century. Lacking the ability to measure longitude, sailors throughout the great ages of exploration had been literally lost at sea.

At the heart of Dava Sobel's fascinating brief history of astronomy, navigation and horology stands the fig
Hardcover, 184 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:

May 01, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This book makes what may sound like a dry technical topic very interesting. The concept of Latitude and Longitude, now commonly understood as GPS coordinates, was not always readily available. While Latitude was relatively easy to deal with as the horizontal position from the equator between earth's two poles, Longitude was a major puzzle that was worked on and studied by many brilliant minds over hundreds of years. Conceptually it is very simple: By comparing the position east or west at your l ...more
Sep 11, 2022 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Dava Sobel has written a very accessible account of a genius who prevailed against the odds. It's concise, absorbing and packed full of fascinating details and interesting characters. A perfect history book for the general reader, and as enjoyable as any novel.

The subtitle says it all, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time. That lone genius was John Harrison (1693-1776) a self taught clock maker. Over 40 years, he invented and produced
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
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
William T.
Jan 05, 2009 rated it it was ok
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
"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
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
J. Aleksandr Wootton
May 07, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: best-of, undergrad
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.
Vincent Masson
Aug 07, 2022 rated it liked it
A very interesting, and informative book that for the most part, effectively balances character with information. I did start to feel like the book needed some diagrams or pictures, because it got really difficult forming mental images of such obscure and complex devices.
Mar 20, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Terence M
4.0 Stars - "I Really Liked It!"
Longitude - The True Story of a Lone Genius who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time
Author: Dava Sobel - Narrator: Kate Reading

This is a review of a wonderfully fascinating book that I read in (say) April 1999 and listened to as an audiobook sometime about 24 May 2015. I thoroughly enjoyed it both times, although the technicalities of measuring Longitude were more difficult to comprehend when reading the paper book. Fortunately my somewhat dim memor
Edgarr Alien Pooh
Mar 29, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, favorites
This book is just about perfection. Why and who decided to venture out and sail the "flat" world and risk dropping off the edge? How did charts and early navigational equipment come to be? There is latitude but what is longitude and who are the pioneers of this science? Answers all contained but in an easy to read and understand book. Well recommended. ...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
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
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
Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship
3.5 stars

For a very short book—175 pages of text, and they’re small pages—this little work of history packs in a decent amount of information. It’s about the centuries-long quest to discover an accurate way of measuring longitude at sea, and particularly the 18th century British solutions.

With the right instruments and calculations, latitude is fairly easy to determine from the position of the sun and stars; people have been doing that for millennia. Longitude is much harder, because everyone at
Britta Böhler
A bit dry at times...
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
This is probably my third time reading this book, and I find it deeply satisfying every time. It is not particularly entertaining - in the sense of story told, but it is very informational, and unfolds in an order that I can understand. And that's generally a big ask. I am easily confused.

Here is why we have watches, timepieces carried on our persons, and that tick-tick-tick that runs every day of our lives. Here is a tool that can determine to the inch where we are on the planet at any given mo
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
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
Camelia Rose
Sep 06, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: history, science
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
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
Sep 05, 2021 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, science
Interesting read that details how the Prime Meridian came to be set in England and how a lone clock maker clashed with bureaucracy of the longitude commission.
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
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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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