Longitude: The True Story of A Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time – Dava Sobel
I’ve always been in awe of clocks – mainly the thought and the trial and error that went into developing them. I come by this interest honestly, since my dad was (among other things) a watch and clock maker.
I also admit to having a thing for books about seemingly mundane subjects, or subjects that most people never give a second thought to.
This book deals not only with horology, but also navigation, astronomy, sailing, science, history. Engrossing read (a popular history more than a scholarly work) about the problem of figuring out longitude. Latitude is easy to figure out from the position of the moon and the sun, but longitude was a very tough nut to crack. There were a variety of theories put forth as to how to calculate it (Galileo explored using the moons of Jupiter as a guide (fine if you’re on land; not so easy if you’re on a ship), another proposal was for a line of ships anchored from Europe to the Americas, that would shoot a pyrotechnic into the sky at midnight so ships could set a clock by them, etc.). None of them were practical. A mechanical, ie, a clock was the approach taken by John Harrison. Harrison was not a learned man, but a Yorkshire carpenter and a self taught clockmaker – who had never even been anywhere near the sea. He was an outsider to the scientific community, who were intent on winning the very lucrative £20,000 (comparable to £2.66 million/$4.25 million US in modern currency) prize that the British Parliament offered to solve the intractable problem. He spent 40 years of his life on it, produced some exquisite and very accurate time pieces, but had to battle long and hard to win the recognition and prize money he deserved.
Thanks to Ben Simon for the recommendation.
A PBS NOVA documentary about the subject worth watching.