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

Lines of latitude stay parallel to each other as they circle the globe from the Equator to the poles in a series of shrinking concentric circles. The meridians of longitude loop from the North Pole to the South and back again in great circles of the same size, so they all converge at the ends of the Earth.

Any competent mariner can approximately gauge his latitude by the length of the day, the height of the sun or known guide stars above the horizon. To measure longitude meridians one needs to know what time it is aboard ship and also the time at the home port or another place of known longitude - at the very same moment. The two clock times enable the navigator to convert the hour difference into a geographical separation (every hour's difference equals fifteen degrees of longitude).

Precise knowledge of the hour in two different places was impossible up to and including the era of pendulum clocks. On the deck of a rolling ship such clocks would slow down, speed up or stop running altogether. According to Dava Sobel, "For lack of a practical method of determining longitude, every great captain in the Age of Exploration became lost at sea despite the best available charts and compasses. From Vasco de Gama to Vasco Nunez de Balboa, from Ferdinand Magellan to Sir Francis Drake - they all got where they were going willy-nilly, by forces attributed to good luck or the grace of God."

In 1714 the British Parliament passed the Longitude Act which offered a prize of 20,000 pounds (twelve million dollars in today's currency) for a "Practible and Useful" means of determining longitude. English clockmaker John Harrison, a mechanical genius who pioneered the science of portable precision timekeeping, devoted his life to this quest. Harrison, with no formal education or apprenticeship to any watchmaker, constructed a series of virtually friction-free clocks that required no lubrication and no cleaning and were impervious to temperature and motion changes. Every successful demonstration of Harrison's clocks was attacked by a scientific elite that was championing alternative solutions. But the utility and accuracy of Harrison's approach triumphed in the end. His followers were able to make design modifications that enabled the "chronometer" to be mass produced and enjoy wide usage. In 1773, "after forty struggling years of political intrigue, international warfare, academic backbiting, scientific revolution, and economic upheaval," an aged and exhausted Harrison finally claimed his rightful monetary reward.

Dava Sobel, an award-winning former science reporter for the New York Times with expertise in astronomy and psychology, documents Harrison's lifelong battle in a thoroughly engrossing manner. Harrison was quite a decent and heroic figure. I think his story would make an inspiring movie.
COPYRIGHT 1996 Institute of General Semantics
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Author:Levinson, Martin H.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1996
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