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Longitude by Dava Sobel
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Jul 27, 2011

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This brief and popular history of the search for a practical method of finding a ship’s longitude focuses on the life and work of a self-taught clockmaker from Yorkshire named John Harrison (24 March 1698-24 March 1776). Even well past the great age of maritime discovery, there was no credible way for a mariner to know his longitude; latitude was easily computed through celestial observa- tion, but longitude meant time: as the earth spins through its twenty-four hour day, position relative to some fixed point could be determined if only one knew the time at the fixed point. Thus the search for an accurate time piece, one that could be taken aboard ship and remain accurate through changes in weather, temperature, humidity and of course the rolling and heaving across the great oceans. Such was the problem that dozens of ships and thousands of lives were lost, foundering on even the most familiar coasts due to their unexpected location. In 1714, Parliament passed the Longitude Act, which established a prize of £20,000 (equal of over £2-million today) and the Longitude Board to administer and certify the efforts.

How Harrison, working later with his son, struggled to have their work accepted and fought against sceptics and critics is the “drama” of the book. It’s written in a plain and simple style (the author was previously a science correspondent for The New York Times). No great art, just a simple story well told.
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