Longitude by Dava Sobel

Jennifer Ouellette’s pop-science book project post and the discussionaround it reminded me that I’m really shockingly ill-read in this area. If I’m going to be writing pop-science books, I ought to have read more of them, so I’ve been trying to correct that.

Hence, Longitude, which I actually read a few weeks ago at the Science21 meeting, but am just getting around to blogging. Longitude is Dava Sobel’s bestselling book about English clockmaker John Harrison and his forty-year sturggle to win 20,000 pounds for making a clock capable of keeping time at sea well enough to allow navigation.

This is a very short book– only 175 pages in a small trim size– and an even faster read. Sobel gives a quick sketch of the longitude problem and its importance in navigation, then proceeds with an account of John Harrison’s solution to the problem, which was to build a clock that could keep time to within a fraction of a second per day, even on a ship at sea.

There’s weirdly little suspense in the timekeeping and navigation part of the story– from the very beginning, Harrison’s schemes worked to keep time on shipboard. It took him forty years to get his reward, though, because one of the machinations of Nevil Maskelyne, the Astronomer Royal, who was promoting his own method for calculating longitude, based on the position of the Moon. Unfortunately for Harrison, the Astronomer Royal was a member of the board charged with evaluating longitude methods, putting him in an excellent position to thwart Harrison.

The bulk of the book is given over to brief character sketches of the major players, and a detailed description of the political maneuvering that plagued the whole project. The writing is excellent throughout, the characters are vivid, and the historical context clear. I would’ve liked a little more detail regarding how and why Harrison’s clocks worked so well, but then, I’m an experimental physics geek. Those with less of a thing for gadgetry will find nothing lacking.

I’ve said once or twice that it would be fun to build a GenEd science class around the title “A Brief History of Timekeeping.” If I ever decide to try it, this book will be essential: it’s brief, wonderfully clear, and a thoroughly enjoyable read. I definitely recommend it.

8 thoughts on “Longitude by Dava Sobel

  1. I read Longitude a few years back as part of an undergrad course, and I really enjoyed it. Sobel is always a pleasure. And, if you’re really interested in the subject matter, you can see some of Harrison’s original clocks at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, on the outskirts of London.

  2. At the Greenwich Observatory in London, there’s a museum dedicated to these seafaring clocks. They’re really neat to see in person. (And to see how big the original ones were, compared to, say, a standard spring wound pocket watch, these days)

  3. I’ve done just such a course, not on the history of timeKEEPING, but on the history of TIME more generally, including such topics as the age of the earth and radioisotope dating, the history of ideas about the age of the universe, astronomy and ancient calendars and such… and the Longitude book was great for the middle third of the course.

    The “Illustrated…” version is much improved by the pretty pictures, IMO…

  4. I also enjoyed the A&E special “Longitude”, available in 2 parts from Netflix et al. So much so I bought my own copy for repeat enjoyment.

  5. I assume you are also familiar with “A Revolution in Time” by David Landes?
    It’s neither as short nor as readable as Sobel’s book, but it would be closer to a full course textbook.

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