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

3.97  ·  Rating details ·  51,313 ratings  ·  2,445 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
Kindle Edition, 180 pages
Published July 5th 2010 by Walker Books (first published 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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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
...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
...more
Max
Nov 11, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Philip Allan
Oct 10, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
...more
Claudia
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:

H1



(http://www.rmg.co.uk/discover/behind-...)

H3



(http://www.rmg.co.uk/discover/behind-...)

And the masterpiece, H4, completed in 1759:



(
...more
Mahlon
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, ...more
John
Aug 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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
William T.
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jan-Maat
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
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
...more
Clif Hostetler
Mar 31, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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,
...more
J.Aleksandr Wootton
May 07, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
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
...more
Michael Burnam-Fink
Jul 14, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jeanette
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
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 ...more
Paul
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
...more
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
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 ...more
David
Oct 29, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Miranda Davis
Jan 06, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Sophie Schiller
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 ...more
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 ...more
Philip
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
...more
Adam Wiggins
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
...more
Eric_W
Nov 17, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
...more
Emily
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
An Idler
Really enjoyable pop-history about an era defined by neoclassical elegance, adventure, and great scientific advances. My only complaint is that Sobel is too quick to slip in hearsay and her own guesses when she's trying to build a catchy narrative. Still, it's thankfully free of woke anachronisms and politics - was 1995 really such a simple time, where a joyful little book like this could be content with a single stab at nuclear waste?

A fascinating true story that illustrates the hallmarks of
...more
Casceil
The book contains a lot of interesting information, and I am glad I read it. I enjoyed the first half. At some point, though, I got tired of reading about how unfairly Harrison was treated in his efforts to claim the longitude prize. The last part of the book seemed to drag, for me.
Literary Chic
Sep 14, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Ms. Sobel made a somewhat obscure topic interesting and informative. Definitely worth the read.
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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 ...more
“He wrested the world's whereabouts from the stars, and locked the secret in a pocket watch.” 18 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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