LONGITUDE; The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time By Dava Sobel. Walker Publishing Company, 1995, Penguin Books, 1996, 184pg
| On the foggy night
of 22 October 1707, British Admiral Sir Clowdisley Shovell had a most
unfortunate experience while trying to return to England from Gibraltar
after an otherwise successful deployment including a series of skirmishes
with French Mediterranean forces. His
navigators had misjudged the longitude and the fleet of five
ships-of-the-line ran aground on the Scilly Isles about twenty miles from
the English shore. Four ships, including the flagship Association, sank in minutes with the loss of some two thousand men.
That tragic incident was merely the latest in a rapidly growing
list of often-horrific mishaps occurring in the seafaring community during
the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as a result of
mariner’s inability to accurately ascertain ship’s position because
there was no known reasonable method to determine longitude at sea.
Besides running into rocks, ships would miss landfall and run out
of food and water. Malnutrition and scurvy were rampant. Entire crews became so weak the ships could not be worked.
Many died and many were never heard from again.
That the Clowdisley incident happened so close
to English shores provided impetus to solve the longitude problem and
eventually precipitated the Longitude Act of 1714 in which the Parliament
provided a prize of 20,000 pounds, the equivalent of millions today, to
anyone who could solve the problem. The
Act set up a blue ribbon panel, The Board of Longitude, consisting of the
leading mathematicians, physicists and astronomers of the day to judge
adequacy of the entries and choose the eventual winning solution.
There were two possible solutions.
The favored one was celestial observation to produce tables of
heavenly body positions and motion and then provide each ship with copies
of the tables and instruments to make their own comparative celestial
observations and thus determine the ship’s position on planet Earth.
To produce the required data (and collect the loot) the leading
mathematicians and astronomers of Europe set to work. Observatories were constructed.
Observations and calculations commenced in Europe, the Americas and
Africa. The second solution
was the theory that a super-accurate transportable timepiece able to show
the exact time at a known fixed geographic location, e.g., the observatory
at Greenwich, could be used to accurately calculate longitude anywhere on
the planet. The rules
stipulated the solution had to determine longitude within a half a degree.
Thus the clock could not gain or lose more than three seconds in
twenty-four hours. Such a
timepiece did not exist and the technology to make it possible was unknown
in the early seventeen hundreds.
Enter our hero, one John Harrison a Yorkshire carpenter, turned into a self-educated clockmaker. Between 1730 and 1770 Harrison built five successively different revolutionary timepieces which completely changed the world. Along the way he did away with pendulums and big clumsy boxes.
He invented, among other things, bi-metallic strips and caged ball bearings. He did not have an easy time and might have gone unremarked by history if not for his tenacity and the personal intervention of George III late in Harrison’s life.
This is a great tale, brilliantly told, of science, greed, jealousy, intrigue, politics and bureaucracy. It is also a tale of perseverance, dedication and generosity. Anyone who reads this book will be thoroughly satisfied with the reading.
Dava Sobel is an award winning former science reporter for the New York Times who writes frequently about science for numerous magazines including Audubon, Discover, Life and The New Yorker. Her latest book is “Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love.
by Cdr. George G. Fisher, USN (ret)
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