Longitude

by

Like access to light at the flick of a switch, the modern world has become completely used to, and entirely dependant upon, accurate time-keeping. As with lighting, that wasn’t always the case though.

That lack of precision made things like navigation very difficult and very dangerous. Even today, the navigation system most of us rely on, GPS, is based on precision time. The position of the satellites, and the time provided by their onboard atomic clocks, is what allows us to know our location.

This book covers the travails of John Harrison, the inventor of the marine chronometer — a watch to keep time on boats. Having an instrument that could measure time accurately meant you could work out your longitude (by comparing it to the local time), thus helping you chart your position, and avoid nasty obstacles.

His winning of the awarded prize was far from a straightforward route, and one that required both ingenuity and perseverance to overcome an array of technical challenges and tho people who backed other methods.

The book isn’t long at 174 pages — apparently an extension of an article. It doesn’t go into any technical detail as it mentions the innovations Harrison introduced, but it does muster a good amount of indignation at his treatment.

As such, it’s an interesting but brief highlight reel of the solving of the longitude problem, which not only paved the way for accurate time-keeping, and not only opened up international trade, but saved many lives as well.

Worth a read to get some background on one of the world’s lesser-know geniuses.

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Reviewed: 5th March 2020