Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time
Written by: Dava Sobel
Reviewed by: Rob Leicht
Genre: History, Biography
In the modern age, where we can pinpoint our precise location via a smartphone, very few people think in terms of longitude and latitude, the lines that crisscross our globe and form the geographic coordinate system. I, for one, haven’t given the idea much thought since elementary school geography class. Yet, just a few hundred years ago, a solution to the problem of accurately finding longitude, especially at sea, was one worth millions of dollars and could save an untold number of lives. Dava Sobel tells of this centuries long quest for longitude, and it is filled with fascinating tales of shipwrecks, political intrigue, intellectual theft, and wild inventions. Sobel’s account is educational and easy to sink into. But it is also short, coming in at under 200 pages, and some readers may be turned off by this. Longitude is well-researched, but an in depth scholarly work it is not.
The best part of Longitude is the story of the lone genius John Harrison, an easy hero to root for, which doesn’t really get started until the book’s second half. Harrison had no formal education and had never apprenticed as a watchmaker, yet he was captivated by the problem of longitude and the prize money that came with its solution. In the 18th century the wealth of the colonizing Western European nations was at sea, and without the ability to determine their longitude, ships were often lost at sea or run aground. Harrison, naturally, favored the mechanical solution in the form of a clock accurate and durable enough to withstand the duresses of a transoceanic voyage. He was forced to argue his merits against a corrupt system that favored an astronomical approach and counted Isaac Newton, Galileo, Cassini, and Huygens as allies. At its heart Longitude is about a single man’s feud against the political and scientific establishment over a problem that had stumped the greatest minds in the world for more than three centuries. Sobel is naturally engaging and maintains high interest throughout. She manages to keep the balance between the personal, scientific, and political aspects of the book while devoting enough time to each to fully paint the overall picture.
Longitude is definitely a quick read popular account – history-lite. Sobel writes in a way that makes the information conveyed accessible to the general reader, no scientific background required. While some readers may find the technical details insufficiently lacking, I found Longitude to be well-written and incredibly engrossing, hitting that perfect balance of educational and entertaining.