I had been wanting to read Dava Sobel's Longitude for years, a desire completely constructed on a vague childhood memory of the Bafta-winning TV adaption being rather good. The problem in the spotlight was one of, well, longitude. If you're standing on a ship, one's latitude (that's the imaginary lines running parallel to the equator) can be calculated with simple instruments: the angle of the sun usually covers that one. So you know how far up or down the earth you are quite quickly. Knowing how far around you are is an entirely different matter.
"To learn one's longitude at sea, 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 that very same moment. The two clock times enable the navigator to convert the hour difference into a geographical separation."That's not too hard, says you. Just bring someone who can work out the time from the sun, and make sure you set your watch before you leave. But that is precisely the point. It's the 18th century - and the average grandfather clock does not keep time too well on a rocking ship - probably a ship forced to stick to long coastlines and a handful of certain dangerous sea routes to get anywhere.
"As more and more sailing vessels set out to conquer or explore new territories, to wage war, or to ferry gold and commodities between foreign lands, the wealth of nations floated upon the oceans. And still no ship owned a reliable means for establishing her whereabouts. In consequence, untold numbers of sailors died when their destinations suddenly loomed out of the sea and took them by surprise. In a single such incident, on October 22, 1707, at the Scilly Isles four homebound British warships ran aground and nearly two thousand men lost their lives."The whole of Europe was searching for a solution, from the crowned heads of state down. In Britain, Parliament offered the equivalent of over £2,500,000 to the person who could solve this intractable intellectual mindbender. And yet, the solution did not come from the top.
For Longitude is the story of John Harrison, the carpenter who changed the world (no, not that one) by ingeniously engineering the first ever timepieces that were seemingly unaffected by their physical surroundings - all despite, it would seem, the rest of the known world being intent on stopping him.
If, so far, it does not sound like a thrilling prospect, let me reassure you - it undoubtedly is. As no less than Neil Armstrong notes in his introduction, "Those unfamiliar with this unique slice of history will find here a fascinating tale of a remarkable achievement…"
The piece has misguided doubters, skeptics, and downright villains - particularly in the form of the Royal Astronomical Society (they of the Greenwich Meridian) who were set on destroying an opposition to their preferred method of complex star charts and measurements for navigation. Time and time again, Harrison meets opposition. Reading Sobel's incredibly researched accounts, you find yourself wanting to reach into the pages and give characters a good shaking - because in hindsight, that anyone would hinder a man destined to influence all of our lives, everyday, seems sheer selfish lunacy.
But hinder they did. This being historical non-fiction, we know the outcome. But the (rightly filmic) path which Harrison and his marine chronometers travelled, through everything from interference to downright sabotage at the hands of his opponents, makes for a frankly unfortunate series of events. That, in the end, Harrison (by now, an elderly gent) achieves the recognition for his work after decades of opposition only seeks to sweeten the deal whilst simultaneously beggaring belief.
Today, his chronometers rest at the Royal Greenwich Observatory, for so long the headquarters of his opposing inquisition, having been painstakingly restored and finally acknowledged as the solution to the most-sought after intellectual challenge of the pre-enlightenment age.