Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

How a Clockmaker Made Sailing the Seas Safer

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

How a Clockmaker Made Sailing the Seas Safer

Article excerpt


By Dava Sobel

Walker & Co.

184 pp., $19

In the days before wireless and global positioning satellites, the most vexing problem in navigation was to determine longitude: how far east or west you had sailed.

Finding latitude, the distance north or south of the equator, was a simple problem by comparison. Instruments to measure the height of the sun, moon, and stars had been known since antiquity. Once out of sight of land, however, the only guide to longitude for the sea voyager was dead reckoning, a rough guess at how far the ship might have come since the last landfall.

A solution to the problem was sought after one foggy night in 1707, when a proud English admiral made a disastrous misjudgment. The improbably named Sir Clowdisley Shovell called together the captains of his five ships of war for a council about the flagship, the Association. The question was: Where were they? The consensus had the ships safely in the English Channel. But a common seaman who had kept his own reckoning during the voyage, argued that the fleet was headed for the rockbound Scilly Isles.

"Such subversive navigation by an inferior was forbidden in the Royal Navy.... Admiral Shovell had the man hanged for mutiny on the spot," writes Dava Sobel in, "Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time." The Association and three other ships struck the rocks and sank, with the loss of thousands of lives. In response, England's Parliament voted the then-enormous sum of 20,000 to reward the inventor of a reliable means for determining longitude.

This handsome little volume is the account of those efforts, and the final triumphant solution. The author is a respected science journalist and former science reporter for The New York Times. The "Longitude Problem," as it became known, was a byword in the 18th century for an insuperable difficulty. …

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