2000-05-15: Longitude


The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time (1995)

by Dava Sobel (1947-)

There is a slight misnomer in the subtitle, as the achievement of John Harrison was engineering rather than science. However, the Longitude Act of 1714, which established the prize he should have won, was conceived in terms of science in the terms of the time.

Sobel’s great achievement is to write an interesting story, focusing on the personalities and their clashes in pursuit of great reward. She makes us inevitably sympathetic toward the man of humble origins who was very ill-treated by the leading men of his time, and robbed of what should have been fame and fortune. He was also given his due by some of the more enlightened scientific minds of his time. In part, Sobel illustrates an instance of the application of politics and memetics to an interesting problem.

Part of the fascination of the work is how the evidence of Harrison’s greatness has been preserved at the Clockmaker’s Museum in Guildhall, London.

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