The Books: “Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time”(Dava Sobel)

Next book on the science and philosophy bookshelf:

Longitude.jpgDava Sobel’s wonderful Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time. My mother was the one who made me read this book. She had read it, and found the whole thing intensely inspiring and moving. It is the story of “the longitude problem”. In the age of exploration, it was still impossible to calculate the longitude. Latitude was easy, but longitude not so. In order to know your longitude, clocks have to be able to keep time at sea. You have to know what time it is where you are, as well as what time it is back at some fixed point of zero-longitude. But clocks would slow down, at sea, they would get waterlogged, whatever. Sailors did the best they could, but – at least from the story told – catastrophes occurred because of this sailing-blind-without-longitude problem. In 1714, the Parliament in England offered an enormous prize to anybody who could solve this longitude problem.

Along comes a man named John Harrison, who devoted his life to solving the longitude problem. And – like so many other stories of genius – John Harrison was not a scientist, or an astronomer – he had no formal education, he wasn’t a Newton or a Galileo. He was a clockmaker. And he also had what it took, in terms of intellectual endurance … to keep trying, to keep experimenting, until he got it right. It’s so so inspiring what he did.

If you haven’t read this book, I highly recommend it. Harrison ended up making a series of time-pieces – called H1, H2, H3 … With each one, he got closer and closer to perfection. H4 is the timepiece that won the prize. H1, H2, and H3 were all heavy, large – After all, these timepieces would need to withstand a storm at sea, would need to keep time steadily throughout the massive up and down motion of the ocean at such times. But H4 is a small and simple pocketwatch. Here is what it looks like.

Here’s an excerpt:


EXCERPT FROM Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, by Dava Sobel.

The active quest for a solution to the problem of longitude persisted over four centuries and across the whole continent of Europe. Most crowned heads of state eventually played a part in the longitude story, notably King George III of England and King Louis XIV of France. Seafaring men such as Captain William Bligh of the Bounty and the great circumnavigator Captain James Cook, who made three long voyages of exploration and experimentation before his violent death in Hawaii, took the more promising methods to sea to test their accuracy and practicability.

Renowned astronomers approached the longitude challenge by appealing to the clockwork universe: Gallileo Galilei, Jean Dominique Cassini, Christiaan Huygens, Sir Isaac Newton, and Edmond Halley, of comet fame, all entreated the moon and stars for help. Palatial observatories were founded at Paris, London, and Berlin, for the express purpose of determining longitude by the heavens. Meanwhile, lesser minds devised schemes that depended on the yelps of wounded dogs, or the cannon blasts of signal ships strategically anchored — somehow — on the open ocean.

In the course of their struggle to find longitude, scientists struck upon other discoveries that changed their view of the universe. These include the first accurate determinations of the weight of the Earth, the distance to the stars, and the speed of light.

As time passed and no method proved successful, the search for a solution to the longitude problem assumed legendary proportions, on a par with discovering the Fountain of Youth, the secret of perpetual motion, or the formula for transforming lead into gold. The governments of the great maritime nations — including Spain, the Netherlands, and certain city-states of Italy — periodically roiled the fervor by offering jackpot purses for a workable method. The British Parliament, in its famed Longitude Act of 1714, set the highest bounty of all, naming a prize equal to a king’s ransom (several million dollars in today’s currency) for a “Practicable and Useful” means of determining longitude.

English clockmaker John Harrison, a mechanical genius who pioneered the science of portable precision timekeeping, devoted his life to this quest. He accomplished what Newton had feared was impossible: He invented a clock that would carry the true time for the home port, like an eternal flame, to any remote corner of the world.

Harrison, a man of simple birth and high intelligence, crossed swords with the leading lights of his day. He made a special enemy of the Reverent Nevil Maskelyne, the fifth astronomer royal, who contested his claim to the coveted prize money, and whose tactics at certain junctures can only be described as foul play.

With no formal education or apprenticeship to any watchmaker, Harrison nevertheless constructed a series of virtually friction-free clocks that required no lubrication and no cleaning, that were made from materials impervious to rust, and that kept their moving parts perfectly balanced in relation to one another, regardless of how the world pitched or tossed about them. He did away with the pendulum, and he combined different metals inside his works in such a way that when one component expanded or contracted with changes in temperature, the other counteracted the change and kept the clock’s rate constant.

His every success, however, was parried by members of the scientific elite, who distrusted Harrison’s magic box. The commissioners charged with awarding the longitude prize — Nevil Maskelyne among them — changed the contest rules whenever they saw fit, so as to favor the chances of astronomers over the likes of Harrison and his fellow “mechanics”. But the utility and accuracy of Harrison’s approach triumphed in the end. His followers shepherded Harrison’s intricate, exquisite invention through the design modifications that enabled it to be mass produced and enjoy wide use.

An aged, exhausted Harrison, taken under the wing of King George III, ultimately claimed his rightful monetary reward in 1773 — after forty struggling years of political intrigue, international warfare, academic backbiting, scientific revolution, and economic upheaval.

All these threads, and more, entwine in the lines of longitude. To unravel them now — to retrace their story in an age when a network of orbiting satellites can nail down a ship’s position within a few feet in just a moment or two — is to see the globe anew.

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