The illustrated longitude

by Dava Sobel

Other authorsWilliam J. H. Andrews (Author)
Hardcover, 1998




New York : Walker, 1998.


Longitude is the dramatic human story of an epic scientific quest, and of John Harrison's forty-year obsession with building his perfect timekeeper, known today as the chronometer. Full of heroism and chicanery, brilliance and the absurd, it is also a fascinating brief history of astronomy, navigation, and clockmaking. Through Dava Sobel's consummate skill, Longitude will open a new window on our world for all who read it.

Media reviews

Ms. Sobel, a former science reporter for The New York Times, confesses in her source notes that ''for a few months at the outset, I maintained the insane idea that I could write this book without traveling to England and seeing the timekeepers firsthand.'' Eventually she did visit the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, where the four clocks that James Harrison constructed are exhibited. She writes, ''Coming face with these machines at last -- after having read countless accounts of their construction and trial, after having seen every detail of their insides and outsides in still and moving pictures -- reduced me to tears.'' Such is the eloquence of this gem of a book that it makes you understand exactly how she felt.
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Here's a swell little book that tells an amazing story that is largely forgotten today but that deserves to be remembered. It is the story of the problem of navigation at sea--which plagued ocean-going mariners for centuries--and how it was finally solved. It is the story of how an unknown, uneducated and unheralded clockmaker solved the problem that had stumped some of the greatest scientific minds. And it is the story of how the Establishment of the 18th Century tried to block his solution. The essential problem is this: In the middle of the ocean, how can you tell where you are? That is, how can you tell how far east or west of your starting point you have gone?

User reviews

LibraryThing member _Zoe_
As the subtitle suggests, this is the story of the man, John Harrison, who came up with a workable method for finding longitude while at sea. He did this by means of a clock, while many other people favoured an astronomical solution, and there's some interesting description of the conflict between the two groups, which was probably increased by the fact that there was a huge monetary prize associated with finding a solution. I enjoyed reading about the eighteenth-century scientific community.

I would have enjoyed reading a bit more about the actual science, too. This is a pretty light and quick read--actually a bit too light for my liking. Sobel mentions various improvements that increased the accuracy of clocks, but I felt like most of the descriptions of the inner workings of clocks were a bit too vague to really give me an understanding of what goes on in there. For example, we learn that "the grasshopper escapement--the part that counted the heartbeats of the clock's pacemaker--took its name from the motion of its crisscrossed components. These kicked like the hind legs of a leaping insect, quietly and without the friction that had bedeviled existing escapement designs." This is all that's said about it, so it wasn't at all clear to me how exactly an escapement worked, and I would have liked to know.

Still, this was a fairly informative book, and probably worth reading, even if it's not anything outstanding. A lot of people will probably be grateful for the fact that Sobel doesn't go into more scientific detail.
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LibraryThing member neurodrew
Read in a single evening, a Christmas gift from Joanne Shea. Sobel wrote a journalistic account of the quest for the Longitude prize, and the tricks that the Royal Astronomers played on William Harrison, the inventor of the first chronometer that did not vary with wave motion at sea. The astronomers would have prefered a method based on the position of the moon among the fixed stars, and resorted to every delaying tactic to avoid paying the prize to a mere technician.… (more)
LibraryThing member kranbollin
As a practicing scientist, I am here to tell you that there is not a whit of science in this awful book. Harrison was not a genius, and the problem was not scientific. The author had the oppotunity to explore how technology is developed and adopted, and blew it spectacularly.
LibraryThing member OccassionalRead
Longitude is not long, which is one of the great things about it. At a slim 160 pages, this was the perfect book for a two hour train ride and a couple of subway rides. Sobel is expert at finding the human drama within scientific discovery and conveying the colorful back-stories. In Longitude, she pits the astronomers against the "mechanics" in a race to devise a fool-proof system to unravel the secrets of determining longitude and secure safer sea navigation. It took nearly half a century but a self-taught clock-maker comes away with the prize, much to the chagrin to the elite scientists of the time. This is a brisk read and you'll be putting the book down with satisfaction long before you think to check your watch.… (more)
LibraryThing member edwinbcn
This was a wonderful read. So many books are nowadays published as 500-plus tomes, while most could elegantly be written in less than half of that. Thus, Dava Sobel tells us all we might want to know about the problem of longitude, and John Harrison, the man who solved it through his hard, and ingenious labour, in an account that captures the spirit of the 18th century, and the machinations and corruption that nearly prevented the honourable Harrison from receiving the reward and praise that are his due. The story highlights the incredible craftsmanship and persistence that we associate with some other great explorers of that time, and which now seems to have disappeared.

Very well-written, never burdened by heavy citations or references, this popular account is a pleasurable read for everyone.
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LibraryThing member mamzel
This is a brief and to-the-point narration of the history of the search for determining longitude and the struggles of John Harrison to build a clock that could withstand the motion, humidity, and temperature variations of sea voyages. This endeavor was so crucial to the exploration of the world that the Parliament offered a huge award for the creation of a method to determine longitude.

What is nice about this book is that there are no deviations from the story - no detailed and ponderous history of navigation since the Stone Age, no biographies beyond what is pertinent to the story. Just the facts, ma'am, just the facts.
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LibraryThing member readingrat
A short little history of the various attempts to solve the longitude problem. I have encountered this same story briefly before in a book I read last year, The Mapmakers by by John Noble Wilford, but this book focuses more exclusively on John Harrison and his battle for getting his highly accurate chronometers accepted by the English Parliament as an acceptable method for determining longitude.… (more)
LibraryThing member PetreaBurchard
I love well-written history and this petite, specific book is it. Dava Sobel traces the search for an accurate tool to measure longitude--a search that lasted long past the time when the tool had been found.

Petrea Burchard
Camelot & Vine
LibraryThing member abbylibrarian
Not my thing.
LibraryThing member VivienneR
Sobel has told a complex story very clearly, staying with the toplc closely and without straying into related events and issues - although she does include many fascinating snippets from history. It is focused on the central character of John Harrison and his achievement of inventing a chronometer that would determine longitude. Her admiration is clear. I pitied Harrison, who spent his life on the job yet parliamentarians were reluctant to award the £20,000 Longitude prize. Thanks to Sobel's writing ability, this short book is a wonderful story, skillfully told.… (more)
LibraryThing member BrianDewey
Sobel, Dava and Andrewes, William J. H.. The Illustrated Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time. Walker and Company, New York, 1998. Fabulous book about John Harrison, who built the first seaworthy watch. Keeping accurate time at sea is crucial for determining the longitude of a ship---and knowing the longitude can be a matter of life or death. Ms. Sobel does a great job of making this story fascinating and presents the human side of the scientific story---for example, the adversity Mr. Harrison faced from the community of astronomers who were convinced that the best way to determine longitude at sea was to carefully measure the angular distance between the moon and another celestial body and consult a series of tables in a four-hour process. A great read, and the illustrations & photographs are well worth the extra cost (this book was first published as a conventional, text-only paperback).… (more)
LibraryThing member setnahkt
Finally got around to reading this one after finding it at a garage sale; it’s a little disappointing, considering the hype and TV-movie deal. The book developed from an article author Dava Sobel wrote for her college alumna magazine. She is, in fact, and excellent writer and this is a pleasant, if quick, read. It suffers by forcing the story of John Harrison into a very standard formula – self-taught genius versus the Establishment. This results in a focus on the personalities involved rather than the scientific problem. I suppose that’s inevitable in a popular book; my own prejudices desire some celestial mechanics illustrations and details on how the Harrison marine chronometers actually worked; I suspect if Ms. Sobel had asked me for advice she could have turned a New York Times bestseller into a quickly-remaindered engineering textbook. You can buy replicas; I don’t see a price anywhere but I suspect it falls in the “if you have to ask you can’t afford it” category. There’s an illustrated version of Longitude available; if it has more than just pretty marine landscapes it could be very good indeed.… (more)
LibraryThing member craigim
A very quick and engaging read. I found it very difficult to put down.

The book chronicles the history and political machinations surrounding the development of the first clocks suitable for maritime navigation.
LibraryThing member tahoegirl
Who knew that a story about the invention to measure longitude would be so exciting. This is the first book that I have read my Ms. Sobel and it will not be the last. She made something that could have been overly academic accessible and interesting. I had never heard of the longitude prize and I loved all the drama and backstabbing that was involved.

The only negative was not about the story and the writing, but the edition I read. I read the illustrated version, and it was giant and difficult to hold while reading, some of the pictures also ruined the flow of the story in some places. If you are trying to decide which version to get, go with one of the smaller ones.
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LibraryThing member slavenrm
I picked up this very little gem at a library book sale, so the first thing to note is that there are copies everywhere, so don't by any means bother to pay full price for one. Second most important is to note that there are apparently two versions. There are those, like mine, that have never even heard of the idea of an illustration. More illuminatingly, there is an illustrated version. Be aware of which you're getting. Thirdly, observe if you will just how short this book is. It's a couple hours reading at best.

Moving on to the usual format of Good and Bad, the only real negative I would apply here is that it does at times seem a bit scattered, as if a good central idea was stretched a bit beyond its proper length. It just seems to meander rather randomly at times.

On the vast positive side, there are all sorts of delicious tidbits from history. So much so that it spurred me to write a blog entry just from the first few dozen pages. I'll reproduce it at the end as an illustration but in summary a very informative book filled with delightful anecdotes.


Tonight’s reading of Dava Sobel’s book ‘Longitude’ reminded me of one of my favorite great “difficulties” from history. Specifically, just how hard it has been throughout mankind’s existence to tell what exactly the time is. It is one of the most bedeviling of problems, since we live on a sphere and the motion of the sun and moon define the very concept of time for us. Unfortunately, twelve noon in New York looks exactly like twelve noon in New Delhi. The book’s topic is primarily that of determining longitude (obviously) but since this is so closely married to the more interesting problem of time-keeping, I felt it incumbent to tease out a few of the more interesting tidbits from tonight’s reading. It should be noted that I’ll only breeze over these points at the highest level. Anyone wanting to actually learn something should go read the book for themselves.

The book opens, and frames the problem of navigation with an ironic and grand story of misplaced wrath from 1707. A British naval officer is making his way home after a successful battle with a fleet of five ships on a very foggy evening. He is approached by a worried sailor who says his reckoning tells him that they are dangerously close to shore. The captain, offended by the affront, has the sailor hanged for mutiny. Minutes later, the entire fleet runs aground and the crews are almost entirely lost. With so few navigational aids, it was nearly impossible to be certain just how far east or west any ship might be. It all really boiled down to guesswork and even seasoned sailors were sometimes failures.

Galileo’s Celatone
One early attempt at solving this problem comes from Galileo. He noted rightly that the moons of Jupiter eclipsed and reappeared with amazing regularity. He constructed a device called a Celatone, combining a helmet and telescope, to aid sailors in observing the various movements of the moons. This, combined with a detailed table of expected movements would provide the time assuming that it was dark… and a clear night… and Jupiter also happened to be on the right side of the planet to be seen. Needless to say, this didn’t quite catch on. Somewhat relatedly, many years later a Danish astronomer, Ole Roemer, observed that the schedule of Jovian eclipses was inaccurate by several minutes depending on the relative positions of Jupiter and Earth in the solar system. He was able to use these deviations to make an exceptionally good calculation of the speed of light, which was thought at the time to be transmitted instantaneously.

Lastly for tonight, and most abundantly oddball, we have the story of “Sympathy Powder” from 1687. Sir Kenelm Digby is said to have discovered a “miraculous” powder that had the power of healing people at a distance. The only down side was that it was a rather unpleasant sensation when put in use. Using this miraculous concoction, the idea was advanced that a dog should be put aboard ship with a festering wound. Each day at 12:00 local time, the powder would be applied to some personal effect belonging to the dog, thus causing it to yelp and alerting the ship’s crew to the real time back home. Issues with this approach abound, of course, but it is a little known fact that this exact method of timekeeping is widely in use today. It is precisely this form of chronology that Doctor’s use to know when appointments are to be kept, at least if my own personal experiences with their promptness are any indication.
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LibraryThing member antiquary
Very engaging style --I read it in one day -- much better than Sobol's A More Perfect Heaven on Copernicus, which inserted a silly play. This one is on John Harrison who developed the marine chronometer and then had a great deal of trouble getting paid the prize money, until George III intervened personally. The book is very good at explaining clearly the technical and scientific issues involved and the rivalry between the mechanical and astronomical approaches to the longitude problem (to say nothing of the really bizarre ones like the wounded dog method). Though Sobol is clearly sympathetic to Harrison, a self-taught carpenter who produced amazingly accurate clocks (some made of wood), she does make clear that the delay in winning the prize was largely due to his own insistence on taking many years to perfect an already functional chronometer. Also, though she is plainly unsympathetic to Maskelyne Nevil, the Astronomer Royal and champion of the rival lunar method, she makes clear that his method worked nearly as well and was initially much cheaper, as it relied on a set of tables that could be printed cheaply, whereas Harrison's clocks were made by hand. It was not until Arnold developed cheaper clocks that Harrison's concept was really useful.… (more)
LibraryThing member John
A charming little book about John Harrison, a self-taught clockmaker who solved one of the greatest scientific challenges of his, and any time: how to determine longitude precisely. Something we now take entirely for granted when we have global positioning satellites that can fix a position anywhere on earth to a matter of inches. Prior to Harrison's invention, in the 1700s, sailors knew latitude, but longitude was more guesswork and good seamanship than anything that had a firm basis to it. Remarkable stories of thousands of sailors lost because the navigation was so bad that ships ran into rocks and shorelines that they thought were hundreds of miles away. Also the story of scientific, and petty human, jealousies that stymied Harrison's attempts to claim the prize established by the British Parliament for the discovery of an accurate way to measure longitude. It was his misfortune to come up against those who put their faith in the stars and use of lunar measurements for the basis of determining longitude. It took the intervention of the King, George III to set things right. Many of Harrison's opponents, including the Astronomer Royal, had a vested interest in belittling Harrison's achievements, and they did so, despite the remarkable accuracy of his devices proven in two voyages to the West Indies; the concept of conflict of interest seems not to have been well developed in those days as his opponents were often part of the panels that judged his work.

The tracking and mapping of the heavens was in itself a monumental feat, as was the increasing understanding of the movement of stars and the moon and the ability to measure them accurately. So the struggle was between those who wanted the power and appeal of the celestial map against the less-divine mechanical solution. The latter won out because it proved itself time and again, and because a difference of only a few seconds a day could spell the difference between successful landfall and disaster. Sobel argues, without unfortunately elaborating much upon it, that the accurate measurement of longitude stimulated the expansion of British exploration and development of the British Empire.

I learned that the first fairly accurate measurement of the speed of light was made in 1676 by a Danish astronomer, Ole Roemer, based on calculations to do with the orbits of Jupiter moons! Amazing.
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LibraryThing member riofriotex
This is a fairly short (175 pages of text in trade paperback size) nonfiction account of the attempts to find a way to determine longitude at sea. It is primarily about John Harrison, inventor of the chronometer. There are no footnotes (intentionally by the author), but there is a two-page bibliography and four-page index.
LibraryThing member aaronball8620
In the modern world we take many of things for granted that were fundamental in shaping our world long ago. Spatial information is one of these things. We use online services like Bing Maps or Google Earth for everthing from locating a friend’s home to tracking epidemic patterns. These online spatial services are a component of geographic information systems (GIS), a technology that is shaping our world today. Central to this technology are latitude and longitude, the coordinate system by which a location is indexed. Without the ability to locate a place by latitude or longitude these services would not be possible.
Latitude has always been simple to find, just take the angle from the horizon to the North Star. Determining one’s longitude was not so easy. Since the Earth rotates 360 degrees in 24 hours, the longitude of a location is the difference in time between noon at that location and noon at the reference meridian. Hence, an accurate method of determining time at these two locations is vital to determining longitude. The book Longitude, by Dava Sobel, tells of how this problem was solved by a persistent clock-maker in England in the eighteenth century.
The problem of fixing longitude is an old one. Without knowledge of the longitude, mariners navigated by dead-reckoning. A ship would sail along a coastline to a fixed parallel. Then turning seaward, it sailed along the parallel to the longitude of a distant port keeping track along the way by reckoning the distance traveled from the ships velocity and hour glasses. Sobel writes of Admiral Sir Clowdisley Shovell’s disastrous miscalculation on a foggy autumn night in 1707. Misjudging the ships location in fog, the Admiral’s five vessels sank and thousands of sailors died. Before longitude shoals of uncertainty and danger waited to sink the dreams of all who ventured beyond the horizon. The Longitude Act of 1714 offered a prize to anyone who solved the longitude problem.
A self-educated clock maker named John Harrison saw a precision time device as the solution to the longitude problem. Instead of going directly to the Board of Longitude, he presented his first clock, the H-1, to the Royal Society in hopes of winning crucial support of the device. The Society agreed to send the chronometer, as the clock came to be called, on an experiment with a departing ship. On the return voyage the ship’s captain made a miscalculation of position that Harrison corrected with his clock. The captain was thoroughly impressed with the performance of the device and encouraged the Royal Society to endorse it. Harrison however believed he could improve upon the design before going before the Board of Longitude for the prize offered in the Longitude Act. He received a loan for a member of the Royal Society and commenced work on the H-2.
As with all stories, an antagonist must introduce challenges for the main character. An antagonist would not be hard to find. Many established scientists staked their reputations on the astronomical solution to the longitude problem. It is Nevil Maskelyne, a villainous name if there ever was one, who emerges as the antagonist in this story. He was a contender for the Longitude prize, as well as a member of the Board of Longitude. Maskelyne is the type of scientist who uses political persuasion to advance acceptance for a hypothesis rather than data. Sobel tells one story of Maskelyne bringing several sailors to a board meeting to praise the success they had with Maskelyne’s lunar tables. Along with a sextant the lunar tables could fix longitude if the sky was clear. In Maskelyne’s mind, the chronometer could only play a supporting role to the astronomical attempt to fix longitude. As conflicting interests such as this typically do, this stalled the acceptance of any real solution for most of Harrison’s life.
One of the most influential supporters of the maritime chronometer was the circumnavigator Captain James T. Cook. He found a copy of Harrison’s fourth device, the H-4, to be most useful. According to Sobel, Cook entered into his journal of the 1772 expedition, “indeed our error (in Longitude) can never be great, so long as we have [the] watch.” Clearly Cook put a great deal of trust in the chronometer for his safe passage. Without a doubt Cook’s support helps to shift the paradigm. Ultimately it was the chronometer that took center stage and Maskelyne’s lunar tables played the supporting role. Cook and other mariners began using the watch exclusively and the lunar tables to maintain the accuracy of the watch.
Without the Harrison’s clocks much of the globe may have gone unexplored until much later in human history. The British Empire may not have ever established the Prime Meridian and each country would still arbitrarily choose it. As Paige Johnson of the Chemistry Department at The University of Tulsa said most eloquently “the chronometer was important shaped the world then and now it is GIS that is shaping the world.”
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LibraryThing member sylliu
The most interesting part of this book is its history lesson: until the mid-1700s, the most difficult scientific problem in centuries of seafaring was the inability to measure longitude. Without knowing longitude, sailors had no reliable way of knowing where they were, resulting in lives, ships, and fortunes routinely lost at sea. So great was the need for a solution that the English parliament put up a bounty of £ 20,000 (multi-million dollars in today’s currency) for anyone who could solve the problem. The book sets up the conflict between the greatest astronomers of the time (Galileo, Newton, Halley, and others), who thought the solution lay in mapping the moon and stars, and one man, John Harrison, an English clockmaker with no formal education, who labored against the establishment and a biased Board of Longitude. He solved the problem by making a revolutionary friction-free, pendulum-less clock that kept extremely accurate time despite salt air and rolling oceans. Although it bogs down in the middle, Longitude satisfies with its tale of Harrison's life-long quest and ultimate vindication.… (more)
LibraryThing member quondame
As a previous reader noted in pencil a through the volume I read - illustrations please! Very readable, a nice calculation on what level of detail would keep a casual reader interested while fairly informed. A horologist would find this skimpy indeed, but such are not the intended audience.
LibraryThing member MarkBeronte
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 nations hung on a resolution. One man, John Harrison, in complete opposition to the scientific community, dared to imagine a mechanical solution--a clock that would keep precise time at sea, something no clock had ever been able to do on land. Longitude is the dramatic human story of an epic scientific quest and of Harrison's forty-year obsession with building his perfect timekeeper, known today as the chronometer. Full of heroism and chicanery, it is also a fascinating brief history of astronomy, navigation, and clockmaking, and opens a new window on our world.… (more)
LibraryThing member JohnMunsch
A history of the solution to finding the longitude of ships at sea (and also cartographers on land) to a degree of accuracy. Explains how easy it was for sailors to figure out their latitude but how poor their methods for calculating longitude were and what the costs were in terms of ships, treasure, and men lost. An interesting book that is a very quick read.… (more)
LibraryThing member NielsenGW
Dava Sobel is one of the greatest science writers of our time. She can turn the seemingly pedantic quest of a watchmaker in England to solve the Longitude problem into a rich tapestry of intellect and intrigue. John Harrison, with his series of four nautical clocks, managed to eschew hundreds of years of astronomical research to create a simple and elegant solution to a problem that caused countless deaths throughout history. This book is definitely worth a read.… (more)
LibraryThing member hailelib
An interesting little book that has been sitting unread in my library for far too long. Anyone interested in either the history of science or in maritime history should try Sobel's description of how Harrison came to build the first really accurate chronometer. There was adventure, feuding between the clockmakers and the astronomers, and a great deal of legal wrangling. There was even a bit of espionage. Not only do I recommend this slim volume but I will probably give her other book on my shelves a try.… (more)



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