The Illustrated Longitude

By Dava Sobel and William J. Andrews

The subtitle for this book is, “The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time.”  It is the story of how John Harrison, who trained as a carpenter but became fascinated by clocks, almost single-handedly solved the problem of determining longitude at sea by creating precision time-keeping instruments more accurate than many believed possible.

This note contains my personal reactions to to the book, and some thoughts on its implications for education.

Personal Reactions

I liked the book.  But, why?  And why did a text that is primarily about an individual who was somewhat of a recluse, who left little in the way of insight about his personal life, and who had almost been forgotten, become a national best-seller?

Of course, it is well written.  Ms. Sobel produced a marvelously readable book.  That said, what she wrote so well about includes:

Ø    The perils of sea travel from the 15th through the 18th centuries.  How frustrating it must have been, with supplies running low and sickness often overtaking the crew, for a captain to know he was at the right latitude for the port he so desperately sought, but, not knowing for certain his longitude, to have to guess as to whether to go east or west!

Ø    The human mind and the many casts of its abilities.  Mr. Harrison was brilliant at complexity and invention.  He created new, complex mechanical and metallic solutions to baffling problems through inventiveness and careful research.  But, apparently, his mind ran so much to complexity that he could not write a readable description of what he did!  In one published piece, his first sentence continues for 23 pages!  Is there something in this that should make us thoughtful about our current scheme of high-stakes tests in multiple subjects?

Ø    The progress of science.  So many discoveries, including the speed of light, were made as a result of the careful study of the heavens that was funded out of a hope for a solution to the problem of longitude.

Ø    The importance of character.  Some of the players in the story of longitude were men of good will and integrity.  George Graham, for example, the leading clockmaker in London , listened carefully to the unknown Harrison when the Royal Astronomer, Sir Edmund Halley (Halley’s Comet), referred Harrison to him.  He spent an entire day going over Harrison ’s ideas, even inviting Harrison to dinner.  In contrast, Nevil Maskelyne, a later Royal Astronomer,  apparently decided against Harrison on the basis of a prejudice against a “mechanical” solution to the longitude problem, and then allowed this prejudice to cause him to mistreat Harrison ’s devices and run dubious trials of them when charged to determine their accuracy.

Ø    The impact of happenstance.  Maskelyne, however, was a competent and diligent astronomer.  He continued careful work that had been begun before him in observing the regularity of astronomical events, and published tables based on the time of these events at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich , England .  Due to the widespread distribution and use of these tables, Greenwich ultimately became the recognized “Prime Meridian”, or zero degrees longitude, and all time is today calculated as a variation from the time at which astronomical events are observed at Greenwich .

There are other interesting tidbits in this history, including the trials of timekeepers on the H.M.S. Beagle, whose young naturalist was Charles Darwin, the involvement of one key piece on the Bounty under Captain Bligh, and their use by Captain Cook in his famous journeys.  King George III, (yes, the one against whom the American colonists rebelled) was greatly interested in science and became personally involved in both testing Harrison ’s creations and in seeing him receive at least some of the reward that was his due.  I also enjoyed the accounts of how others took the complex genius of Harrison ’s creations and produced a genius of simplification and production to allow chronometers (marine timekeepers of exceptional accuracy) to be produced in the numbers necessary to support navigation.

Implications for Education

Ø    At 210 pages, this book is much lighter than most of the badly-written, often-inaccurate, and mostly boring textbooks we spend a great deal of money purchasing.  Students reading it, however, might well learn more of history, science, writing, geography, and psychology than they ever pick up from textbooks.  Learning to read is important, but actually reading, and reading in quantity, is key to learning.  And reading in quantity requires books such as this to be available in libraries and an option in the curriculum.

Ø    The President of the Dixie Chapter of the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors is listed as Keneth Penkal of Columbia .   What could this group add to the development of quality work for students?  The National Association even has an educational chapter and a School or Horology.

Ø    Who would work with Mr. Penkal on designing such work?  An interested teacher or teachers.  But they have to have time to do so, and a structure to support such teacher-led instructional improvement would help.

Ms. Sobel, former science writer for the New York Times, published the text in 1995. Dr. Wheatland, Curator of the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments at Harvard University worked with her to provide illustrations for this volume in 1998.