Random Book review number two – Longitude by Dava Sobel.


The second of the books on my Random Book pile is Longitude by Dava Sobel. Again this is not the sort of book I would usually select for my reading material and again I was surprised at how interesting it was.

Dava Sobel is an American writer who writes books primarily about science related subjects. Longitude was first published in 1995 and has since – in 1998 –  been made into a TV series. There has been at least two re-prints, the last one in 2005.

So, what is the book about?

We all know that there are lines of latitude and longitude on maps – this is the story of the race to acurately measure where ships were longitudinaly….before we had the luxury of satelite navigation systems.

Back in the day…..a phrase incidentally that makes me grind my teeth, but I’ll use it anyway….back in the day, ships crews navigated by the stars and used sextants along with a compass to ascertain their position on the map. This was all well and good when land was still in sight and on clear nights, but when the sky was overcast or ships were surrounded by fog, they had to use a best guess system of estimating their speed, the direction of the tide and approximate time travelled. They were sometimes hundreds of miles off course.

Many ships floundered on rocks and reefs and many lives were lost….not to mention precious cargo.

The race was on to find a better way to find an exact position on the map and a cash prize was offered for the person who could determine longitude at sea within a very small margin of error.

What it came down to was a group of scientists and the science/mathematical based community in one corner and a lone clock maker from Yorkshire called John Harrison in the other.

I’ll not tell you who wins, but there are a series of twists and turns, deceit and rule changes along the way to the prize.

It`s actually a fascinating story about a subject that, these days, we barely even think about. The answer to the longitude problem was complex and quite a brilliant achievement – that took over 40 years of struggle and commitment to solve.

Originally written as a magazine article for Harvard Magazine, the publisher asked Dava to expand it into a book for which she was paid a mere $7000 advance, which barely covered the cost of the research she did on the book. The book however was an outstanding success and made the best seller lists, as well as winning British Book of the Year in 1997 -much to her own and her publishers surprise – and cemented Dava into her own unique genre.

Definitely worth a read and I’ll give it 3 out of 5.


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