Year of 52 books #4: Longitude

Confession: I’ve had some crazy scheduling stuff come up recently so while I’m currently reading book #6, I’m a bit behind in my reviews, so I’ll be playing catch-up in the next few days. I finished this book a little over a week ago.

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

by Dava Sobel



My dad loves documentaries, especially of the National Geographic or Nova variety. This may be where a lot of his random trivia knowledge comes from; I know that the things I learned through osmosis while these programs were on in the house for much of my childhood certainly come in handy when it’s Trivial Pursuit time. They also, incidentally, made me look like a huge nerd (yes, even more than normal) one time in eighth grade history class when I happened to be the only student who not only had heard of but also was able to tell about the German Enigma code machine from WWII. I had learned about the enigma machine while sitting on the couch in our family room downstairs, probably working on some counted cross stitch project (my nerdiness factor really isn’t shrinking much here, is it?) as my dad watched a TV program on the code breaker. I think he also used the opportunity to tell me about the decoder rings he had loved in his childhood, but I may just be thinking of A Christmas Story.

Anyway. Most of the documentaries he watched have just kind of blurred together for me, but I do have a specific memory of once again sitting downstairs (only this time I was working on a puzzle, I think of a map of the USA—yeah, I’m never getting rid of the nerd label now) watching a documentary about the search for longitude with my dad. I also remember missing the end of it because I was rather young and my mom made me come upstairs to get ready for bed. So when I saw that the Kindle Daily Deal awhile back (we’ll talk another time about just how much I adore the KDD) was a book called Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, you can bet I 1-clicked the heck out of that deal.

And I loved this book. It’s written as a popular account rather than a history, so while it is still historically accurate and well-researched, it moves along at a great clip, it doesn’t get bogged down in footnotes and it’s exciting and accessible. It almost reads like a novel in some places—you’ve got your problem that is threatening the existence of the kingdom; your plucky hero from somewhere obscure, fighting against all odds to save the day; your villains and antagonists who are bound and determined to throw every obstacle possible into the hero’s way in order to win the glory for themselves; and somehow it all turns out right in the end. Throw in a handful of astronomers and watch-makers and you’ve got Longitude.

Most people don’t realize in our era of GPS and Google Earth that in the early and not-so-early-at-all days of sailing, longitude was a major problem. Captains could determine latitude quite easily from the sun and the equator, but longitude was a different matter all together. Leaving aside the basic fact that people couldn’t agree where the Prime Meridian should be in the first place, even once you started from the prime meridian you had no accurate way to measure your distance from it. This could lead to disaster at sea, from not knowing how close you were to shore, which led to a disastrous shipwreck of Admiral Sir Clowdisley Shovell’s fleet on the Scilly Islands in 1707, causing a loss of 4 ships and 2000 men; or from losing time and supplies backtracking to find your destination, as in the case of Commodore George Anson, whose longitudinal delays in 1741 eventually led to the death by scurvy of more than half of his 500-man crew. These and similar disasters prompted Parliament to establish the Longitude Act in 1714, which formed the Board of Longitude to award a prize worth millions of today’s dollars to the person who came up with (and proved!) an accurate method of determining longitude at sea.

Sobel’s subtitle makes it seem as though this book is mostly focused on English clockmaker John Harrison, who eventually won the prize. However, the book’s scope is a bit wider than the subtitle lets on, and Harrison’s story is only one of the threads of the narrative. Sobel also chronicles several failed attempts, some of which are hilariously bad (one involving pouring “sympathy powder” on a wounded dog’s tail at a set time everyday is particularly great, as is the one that proposed to anchor ships at various intervals throughout the ocean to set off fireworks and cannons at set times), and the aftermath of Harrison’s inventions. All in all, this is an excellent and comprehensive-enough view of the longitude problem, and it was fascinating.

I loved Sobel’s writing style, which was clear and succinct but also lyrical. I also have to applaud her choice of chapter epigraphs, especially the nod to Lewis Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark” (and that was the last nail in my nerd coffin. Ah, well). My one complaint is that there were no accompanying pictures of the people or devices described in the book, at least not in my Kindle edition.

If you’re interested in readable history and science (or even if you think you don’t like history or science) and cool inventions and astronomy and unpleasant people with names like Rev. Maskelyne, do yourself a favor and pick up Longitude.


1 Comment

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One response to “Year of 52 books #4: Longitude

  1. Pingback: Year of 52 Books: Rounding up, rounding out, rounding off | LitGroupie

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