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Longitude – Book Review

LongitudeAuthor: Dava Sobel

Publish: Bloomsbury USA, New York (Walker & Company in 1995)

Copyright: 1995, ISBN 080271529X

Cover: Claire Naylon Vaccaro

reviewed by: Lynard Barnes, March 22, 2015

Summary: The connection between global longitudes, clocks and the scientific method as politics.


By 1737, John Harrison of Yorkshire County, England had perfected what we today call the clock.

If you woke up this morning and looked at your clock, you most likely did not realize that if you had awaken any time before the year 1737 you would not have had a clock to look at.  This is not to say there was no way to “tell the time”. As Lee Child’s fictional skilled drifter Jack Reacher, can attest, human senses are inundated with time cues from the environment twenty-four hours, seven days a week. Who needs a clock?  Two hundred and eighty years ago there was no fretting over a lack of eight hours of sleep, no imperative to be at the office before nine. Amazingly, there was also no way to conveniently plot a sailing course from a sea port in North Carolina to a port in England.

We could blame John Harrison for our thought consuming and emotionally hectic twenty-first century obsession with time. We could also blame him for the puritan work ethic that is so dependent upon time. That work ethic is rather unique to America though it surfaces sporadically throughout Europe as well.  Of course not everyone is caught up in a time tracking stream. Fiction authors seem fond of pointing to the relaxed attitude people in South America have toward time.  John Grisham in THE TESTAMENT elevates the observation into a plot assistant as does Eric Leuthardt in his intriguing 2014 novel, RED DEVIL 4.

What does all this have to do with Dava Sobel’s LONGITUDE?  Nothing actually. One of the many joys of reading this book is following the drama of John Harrison’s quest for the £20,000 prize offered by the British Parliament’s Longitude Act of 1714. In following that drama, we are introduced to a bevy of plot-lines with firmly defined tendrils into our science and politics of today.

The board established by the Longitude Act to judge submissions and award money to anyone coming up with a method of determining longitude on the high seas was finally disbanded in 1815. As Sobel points out, by the time the Board of Longitude disbanded in 1828, its primary function was to test chronometers for ships in the Royal Navy. But there was more to the hundred-year history than a board of scientists attempting to award money to someone solving a seemingly unsolvable problem.

The original Longitude Act of 1714 was rewritten in 1774. This re-write occurred roughly a year after Harrison was awarded £8,750. The amount was addition to money the Board itself has provided to him or his ongoing efforts. The payment was not a final awarding of the board’s prize however. Rather it was in recognition of Harrison’s forty-year effort to claim the prize. The money was not authorized by the Board but rather by Parliament. In 1772 Harrison petitioned King George III—yes, that King George—to intercede on his behalf.  Politics and science. Who would have thought?

Sobel  does an excellent job of explaining the politics around the non-decision around the prize. It seemed that a simple though excellent clock-maker was no match for observers of the newly discovered “clockwork universe”.  Sobel tells us that prior to the establishment of the Longitude Board, an “active quest for a solution to the problem of longitude persisted over four centuries and across the whole continent of Europe.”  She goes on to name a few of the luminaries of astronomy—Galieo Galilei, Jean Dominque Cassini, Sir Isaac Newton, Edmond Halley—who applied their talents to the problem. The Board of Longitude was under the sway of the seemingly more complex science of the heavens than of men and their machines. Yet, the initial genius of Harrison nurtured a platoon, a company and then a battalion of like-mined men who thought the solution to the longitude problem was in a man-made time-piece.  Sobel provides excellent accomplishment sketches of some of these men, including Larcum Kendall who was commissioned by the board to produce a copy of Harrison’s fourth generation. It was this fourth generation clock, reviewed by the board, that subdued some of the skeptical astronomers. Clock makers also mentioned are Thomas Mudge, John Arnold and Thomas Earnshaw who “changed the chronometer from a special –order curiosity into an assembly-line item.”

The upshot of all the history is the 1884 International Meridian Conference in Washington, D. C. in which twenty-six countries adopted the Greenwich meridian as the prime meridian of the world. Thus we have Greenwich meantime (GMT) and all clocks are set relative to the distance east of it.

Beneath the surface of the history, the lesson gleamed from the ups and downs of this scientific pursuit is the emergence of bureaucracy in directing the path of scientific development. This has proven to be both an advancement and hindrance to our scientific knowledge. Think peer-review, standards and then think herd mentality following established dogma.

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