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Check It Out: Longitude by Dava Sobel

Today I would like to recommend the nonfiction book, “Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time” by Dava Sobel.

Did you know that finding longitude was a problem for sea farers since the first time boats hit the water all the way to the eighteenth century? Latitude is easy. Look at the sun. But apparently longitude was much, much trickier and incredibly easy to get wrong. And if you got it wrong, people died. It could be figured out if you knew what time it was where you were compared to what time it was at the port where you left. But the thing was, the clock/watch you used to keep track of that had to be perfect. No losing time. No winding it up. No worrying about oiling it. Your watch losing even seconds of time meant you could be off hundreds of nautical miles.

In 1714 the British Parliament set a £20,000 reward for whoever could solve the problem. To win the full prize, the method or device had to be accurate to within one-half degree on a trip from England to the West Indies.

Enter John Harrison, a self-educated village carpenter and clock maker. Lowly in status and not “fine enough” for society, this country bumpkin did what no one else could do before him.  Over several decades he was able to create the most intricate marine clocks and watches ever forged. If he had created these as much as a century previously, he might have been accused of witchcraft. That’s not hyperbole. His creations were so precise and ingenious that some of them still run today. Also, the are absolutely GORGEOUS.  

This first of his longitude devices was called the H-1, and looks like something HG Wells would have drooled over. By the time H-4 came around, he created a longitude device that was slightly larger than a pocket watch. Think of it this way: It would be like the SAME person created the first computers and then by the end of their life, created a smart phone. From Charles Babbage to Steve Jobs in one lifetime.  I think the word “genius” gets thrown around too easily, but this Harrison absolutely astounded me with his genius.

Sobel’s account is short and very succinct. There is no extra fat to it.  Facts and names and details. But that by no means suggests that it wasn't a very good and informative read, with a clear protagonist and antagonist. I urge you to come to the Sioux City Public Library and get your copy of Longitude and be astounded by the capabilities of human ingenuity.

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Support for Check It Out comes from Avery Brothers.