Wednesday, September 18, 2013

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

Years ago, I noticed the thin volume: Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time on my Dad's desk. It looked intriguing, yet I ignored it.

Then I visited Greenwich, England where a docent at the museum heartily recommended the very same book. I continued to ignore it.

Finally, my friend Dawn recommended the very same book, even going so far to let me borrow her copy.

Needless to say, I finally read and enjoyed the book. It held up to all the recommendations.

The book has a simple premise: finding your latitude on Earth in the 1700's wasn't that tricky. Calculating your longitude, on the other hand, was dang near impossible. If one could tackle the problem of deriving one's longitude, then navigating the globe becomes a whole lot easier. And once you can navigate, you can do things like exploring, conquering and shopping with ease.

This all made sense to me. I expected, therefore, that figuring out a method of calculating longitude would be the surprising part of the book. In fact, it wasn't. Even in the 1700's scientists and explorers knew *how* to calculate longitude: you simple compared the time of day at your current location compared with that of the current time of the port you left. From there, you did a little math, and poof, you had longitude. Imagine that, somehow the math geeks of the 1700's figured out a way to use *time* to calculate *location*.

While my visit to Greenwich so many years ago left me with the distinct impression that one calculates longitude using time, I'd never had a clear idea how it was done. In the first chapter of this book however, the author explained it, and to my utter joy, I understood. In many respects, using time to calculate longitude is one of those terrific hacks that everyone should understand and appreciate.

OK, the calculation of longitude wasn't the tricky. So what does that leave? Well, calculating the current time isn't particularly very hard (wait until the sun is directly overhead, bam! you just found noon), either. That leaves only part of the equation: figuring out what time it is back in port.

Easy, set a clock before you leave, glance at it when you want to know what time it is. What could be easier? While clocks certainly existed in the 1700's, they weren't nearly reliable or durable enough to put on a ship and remain accurate. And here's the part that blew my mind: the leading scientists of the day assumed that clocks would *never* be that reliable or durable. In fact, they assumed that it would be easier to calculate longitude from the moons of Jupiter than it would be to expect a clock to reliably keep time.

The story of Longitude, then becomes a pursuit to create perhaps the ultimate clock.

In defense of the scientists of the day, it was probably like looking at ENIAC and trying to imagine Google Glass; not an easy proposition.

It shows that not only do we take technology for granted, but we take the rate of technological advance for granted as well. Of course when I was in college 1Gig was a huge hard drive, and now 1,000 Gigs is considered standard; I'd be silly not to expect that. As the hero of our story shows, that just wasn't always the case.

My only gripe with the book is that now it makes me long to go back to Greenwich where I can properly examine the clocks that originally solved the Longitude problem.

Oh, and one other thought: I'll never take a watch for granted again. Even the $8.00 Timex was once the stuff of pure fantasy.


  1. Anonymous1:36 PM

    Interesting. If you like this sort of thing, I recommend "The Clockwork Universe," an account of the founding and early years of the Royal Society.

  2. I too have seen this book, and I too have thought I should read it. Seeing your recommendation made me check the library database and reserve it. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. Thanks Eric, I'll check it out.

    And Exploriment, hope you like the book!