Uncommonly Good Books Read by Two Common Guys – Longitude

Dave:  Hello again everyone. Today we’re talking about the book, “Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of his Time”, by Dava Sobel, which talks about the old world struggle to figure out a way to determine the longitudinal position of a ship at sea. It was a mystery which had stumped the greatest minds for centuries.

Nate:  Exactly. A way to determine latitude had been devised much earlier, but if you didn’t know longitude, it was possible you could be 100 miles further east or west than you thought you were, making navigation extremely difficult and hazardous. Countless ships were lost at sea, shipwrecked, delayed, or had crews that died of scurvy due to depleted rations from the 15th through the 18th centuries – and much of this was a direct result of not knowing exactly where you were on the ocean.

Dave:  There were essentially two methods for determining longitude that came to the forefront during the 18th century when this problem was being tackled. One was the astronomical method, which consisted of determining longitude by looking at objects such as stars, planets, and moons to figure out your position, and the other was the mechanical method, which entailed building a clock which could keep track of the time back at your home port. Because if you knew what time it was there, and you knew what time it was where you were on the ocean, you could figure out your position.

Nate:  Both of these methods had issues that had to be resolved, however. On the mechanical side, there had never been a clock built that could keep time at sea. Conditions at sea, such as moisture, changing temperatures, and rolling waves had always interfered with its functions, not allowing it to be exact enough. To be useful, a timepiece could not lose more than three seconds in twenty four hours – any more than that and a ship would not be able to determine its position accurately enough. And on the astronomical side, complete maps of the stars had not been done up to this point in history, so that solution seemed far off as well.

Dave:  And while the astronomers of the day scrambled to complete maps of the stars, a little known English clockmaker took up the challenge of determining longitude, and solved it with relative ease.

Nate:  And that clockmaker, John Harrison, was an interesting guy, as he was totally self made. He had never really had any formal training in building clocks, yet the pieces he made were remarkable. He built a clock tower in Brocklesby Park in England that has run continuously since 1722 – the only time it stopped was when it was refurbished in 1884. He applied this genius to building a longitude clock, or chronometer, and like you said, built one without too much trouble.

John Harrison

Dave:  Building one wasn’t too much trouble, but receiving recognition for it became a struggle he would endure for decades. He actually ended up building four chronometers, each one being an improvement over the last. I have to say, after reading this book, I was taken back to another book we reviewed some time ago about the journey of the Apollo astronauts to the moon. It seemed like we’d kind of come full circle. It’s amazing to think that the astronauts who went to the moon were able to land within a few hundred feet of where they were supposed to. And the solution to determining longitude was the beginning of mankind’s ability to figure out exact location. How many doors did that open up? It’s almost impossible to say.

Nate:  I agree. You really take for granted things that have always been there, and are always there for you. We just have to look at a watch, cell phone, clock on the wall, or any other device that says the time, no matter where we are, and we know it will be correct. We don’t have to do any calculations, or wonder how we’re going to figure it out. The same goes for knowing our position in the world. From maps, to GPS, determining location is something that is so easy and readily available that we don’t even think about it.

Dave:  But in the old days of sea exploration that knowledge wasn’t “just there”, and it was a real problem. After reading this book, it’s obvious why the routes the early explorers took seemed to zig zag all over the place.

Nate:  I find it amazing they ever found their way, to be totally honest. And it wasn’t just an issue with exploring. It was a commerce problem as well.

Dave:  Absolutely. You had ships going down at sea with hulls full of valuable cargo. So it wasn’t just loss of life, it was also the loss of profits.

Nate:  Another thing I found interesting in this book were the discoveries made while trying to find a solution to longitude. Like we said, a complete map of the stars had not been made up this point in history. Well, by the time the problem had been solved, star maps were more complete than they had ever been. And astronomers had also learned a lot more about the sun and moon, as far as their cycles, and the effects both have on the earth.

John Harrison's First Chronometer

Dave:  It’s always interesting to see what discoveries are made when people are trying to find the answer to something else. The way map making changed after the introduction of chronometers is interesting as well. The quality and accuracy of maps improved immensely during this time, and the view of the world began to take more of a modern feel. I have to say, I found John Harrison to be an interesting character. There wasn’t a lot of “character development” in this book, and with Harrison largely because not much is known about his early years. But his dedication to building the perfect chronometer, and the struggle he had trying to earn recognition, and the monetary reward that was due to him is interesting. People always like stories about underdogs, and this is an underdog story.

Nate:  It’s also a story about a mechanical genius. Like we said, this was someone who was totally self-made and yet his devices were absolutely revolutionary, and worked better than any devices previously made. When he showed his chronometer to others within the clock making fraternity, they were fascinated and awed by his work.

Dave:  After reading the book, I also thought about how this continued to give England a leg up in naval supremacy. They had already been the premier naval power in the world for a couple of centuries, but this helped allow them to maintain that dominance of the seas for a lot longer.

Nate:  It was also fun to read about Rupert T. Gould, who restored Harrison’s clocks in the 20th century. He was not happy that these historically significant pieces had been allowed to fall into a state of disrepair. Although they had been kept over the years, they had not been cared for.

Dave:  That’s right. So he went about restoring them, even though he had no experience or knowledge of working with clocks. In that respect he was in the same boat Harrison was when he started out.

Nate:  And interestingly enough, he spent the most time restoring Harrison’s third clock, which is the one Harrison took the most time to build. It seems they had many of the same issues with that one, even though their work was almost two centuries apart. So, who would you recommend this book to?

Dave:  I think anyone who has an interest in history, science, or astronomy would enjoy it.

Nate:  I agree. I would also include those who are interested in maps or map making, as well as anyone interested in clocks or clock making. The book is less than 200 pages, so it’s short, and not a huge time commitment. So if you have even a small interest in any of these areas I’d recommend giving it a shot. I think you’ll really enjoy it.

Dave:  And once you’ve read it, you might check out the made for TV movie based on the story, also called “Longitude”. It came out several years ago and stars Jeremy Irons and Michael Gambon. It’s an excellent two part mini-series/movie, and we have it here at the library as well.