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Illustrated Longitude

The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

by Dava Sobel

Illustrated by William J. H. Andrews

Walker & Co., November 1998

224 pages, hardcover

Review by Jim Walker


Dava Sobel's 1995 book first came without illustrations, but to meet reader demands, her publisher released the Illustrated Longitude. It Includes 110 beautiful color and 73 black & white illustrations.
Longitude describes how scientists tried to find a way to determine east-west locations at sea. Before the 1700s ocean navigators could not find an accurate way of determining longitude. This failure caused ships to miss their destination, many times crashing into rocks and killing their crews. A practical solution came from a simple carpenter, John Harrison, who solved one of the most difficult problems of his time by creating an accurate chronometer. The best scientists of the time, including Isaac Newton, thought it impossible. Harrison spent four decades perfecting a watch that would ultimately earn him the prize established by the Longitude Act of 1714, thanks to the recognition and influence of King George III of England.
As one trained in mechanical design, I was fascinated by Harrison's mechanisms, especially his idea of using two materials to offset the effects of heat and cold (the precursor of the bimetallic strip used in thermostats to this day) and caged ball bearings, still used today in wheels, engines, and electric motors.
Sobel, a former science reporter has written this history book like a short novel, complete with mystery, intrigue, and includes Harrison's arch-rival, Rev. Maskelyne, an astronomer who thought the solution lay in the heavens instead of a man-made object. It shows how greed and intransigent skepticism can work against the best ideas.
[Note, the Nova program, "Lost at Sea - The Search For Longitude" was aired on PBS, October 6, 1998, and was based on Sobel's 1995 book.]
1. Imaginary Lines
2. The Sea Before Time
3. Adrift in a Clockwork Universe
4. Time in a Bottle
5. Powder of Sympathy
6. The Prize
7. Cogmaker's Journal
8. The Grasshopper Goes to Sea
9. Hands on Heaven's Clock
10. The Diamond Timekeeper
11. Trial by Fire and Water
12. A Tale of Two Portraits
13. The Second Voyage of Captain James Cook
14. The Mass Production of Genius
15. In the Meridian Courtyard

To obtain this book, click below:

The Illustrated Longitude

Longitude (text the same as above, but without illustrations) (paperback, hardcover)