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If one wants to understand navigation on the high sea, out of sight of land, it will not help to read Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel. This New York Times bestseller is so bereft of details that even Isaac Newton wouldn’t have been helped to understand so simple a device as the sextant which he invented. Nor would John Harrison get a clue on how to make a good clock, and he invented much of the internal workings of mechanical clocks. This book has neither illustrations of the mechanisms the whole book is supposedly written about, nor any remotely adequate description of how they work. The author writes a book about something of which she has little understanding, and several times it is necessary to just soldier on through blurry nonsense. Perhaps it is better she didn’t attempt to explain something so difficult as light reflecting off of not just one mirror but two, as in the sextant

Short description

or the complexity of an escapement mechanism

in a clock which permits some stored energy to power the pendulum when it is in one position and reset the switch when the pendulum is in its other position. A couple of images of the inventions these men made, and the improvements to those basic inventions, with a little description, would have made the book much more understandable and interesting.

Well, okay, the book wasn’t supposed to be about the technical aspects of how these mechanical devices actually worked even though that was what half of the book’s rather long title implied but about the man, the “Lone Genius” who did the work. Then the book delves rather superficially into the characteristics of the man, saying, for example, that he couldn’t write a legible sentence ,and purports that he wrote totally without punctuation, sometimes for twenty five pages. Rather than just saying that, how about a sustained example of a couple of hundred words of one of his descriptions showing how he actually did write something? That way we would have a feeling for the man rather than the author’s personal, grade school teacher, impression of him. It is like she would describe a photograph of some person rather than just showing us the picture, as if her description would give us a better understanding than our own personal observations. This silly procedure was actually followed on page 127-8, where she writes at length about two portraits of Harrison, and their differences without showing them.

John Harrison was a great genius and he proved that genius again and again by the invention, and manufacture of better and better clocks. This has improved the lives of everyone who has lived ever since his time because it permits the necessities of our lives to be moved to us from all over the world. Modern civilization would instantly collapse to a lesser state, without accurate time keeping devices. The word genius properly used doesn’t mean doing well on an IQ test it means doing something new and useful, and showing it to the public. By that standard John Harrison was one of the greatest geniuses of all time at least in the realm of mechanical invention.

He got off to a very good start and even as a teenager had managed to build a clock for the local church which is still working some two and a half centuries later. Being the son of a carpenter he made this first clock out of wood. With this proof of ability and experience he was able to meet some of the most advanced technical people of his time, and get some modest funding for making more inventions. If he could have developed a shop of assistants he would have been the Henry Ford of his time, because there was a terrific if unrecognized demand for thousands if not millions of good clocks. But he was interested in a specific problem: how to make a really super accurate clock that would function reliably in ships at sea under really dreadful conditions. He succeeded time and again with better and better clocks, and it was his designs built under his supervision which accompanied Captain James Cook on his voyages around the world when the world was first being discovered and accurately mapped. It would have been much more difficult and less accurately done, without Harrison’s clocks. These clocks were so accurate that a new term was applied to them, chronometers.

His real problems were with his sponsors, who if they had been fair would have parceled out honors and prize money to the various people working on the problems of finding one’s location while on a rocking ship at sea. That problem wasn’t really solved until recently with the GPS (Global Positioning Satellite) system. Harrison’s competitors were not especially evil; they just had different approaches. For example, his chief rival Nevil Maskelyne created the nautical ephemeris that is still in use today. But because of his position as director of Greenwich Observatory, and being on the board of directors controlling the distribution of money, Maskelyne was able to push his system of navigation over that of Harrison. Even the slightly paranoid will claim that what Maskelyne did, because of his political position, was unfair sabotage of Harrison and his clocks.

It is really too bad that there was this bad relationship between them because both of their methods worked, and both had advantages and weaknesses. Maskelyne’s method was better at the time because it cost much less money to use. Harrison’s chronometers took three years to build, and were extremely expensive. Whereas with Maskelyne’s method the only things needed to find one’s location were a sextant, some printed tables of star positions, and an hour or two of handwritten calculations. Harrison’s method was much quicker, and perhaps ten times more accurate at sea, but Maskeylne’s could be accurately recalibrated when on a stable, even unknown shore. Harrison’s could be used twenty four hours a day in good weather but Maskelyne’s had four day periods every month when the moon was near the sun, and it became useless. Another method using the occultations of the moons of planet Jupiter worked quite well if one had clear night skies, a steady base, a good telescope and a good set of printed tables of occultations.  By using this method one could get a good time and thus location fix about once per day.

Longitude is a short book at 175 pages, and is written in a rather pedestrian style as if for an average high school student. There is nothing challenging about this book even though it deals with vicious controversy and subterfuge. Those negative things get a rather distant whitewashing, and everything is put into a pleasant past where genius gets its reward posthumously. This same thing is happening here in Berkeley where our truly creative people are so ignored that anyone can talk to them. Whereas the football coaches, and rock stars get statues, and multimillion dollar paychecks for transient nonsense. This book Longitude shows that it was ever thus, apparently.