In the 17:th and 18:th century, when Great Britain was building the empire and European colonialists where competing to conquer the world, there was one major problem in navigating ships; the lack of a method to find the longitude (east-west) position at sea. This led to uncertainties in navigation and cause the loss of many ships, thousands of lives and big fortunes.
While a method to determine the latitude, north-south position was well known for centuries, the problem of determining the longitude was so important that the British parliament offered a prize of Ā£20.000 in 1714, a huge fortune at that time, to anyone that succeeded finding a method to determining it at sea.
It was one of the great scientific problems of its time, despite efforts by many geniuses, including Newton, the top astronomers and mathematicians of the world. The main focus was to try to use measurements of the movements of the moon, planet and stars, perform advanced calculations and compare to calculated tabled values but no-one came up with a usable method.
What they all knew was that if one could measure the time accurately enough, the problem would be easy to solve. However they all agreed that it was impossible to construct a clock that was accurate enough when subjected to the movements of a ship at sea.
One carpenter, turned clock maker, John Harrison, thought otherwise, and spent much of his life trying to perfect different types of clocks and finally built the first usable ships chronometer.
The book The Illustrated Longitude by Dava Sobel and William J. H. Andrewes have dug into the story with all its twists and turns and intrigues that went right up to interventions by king George III. The book describes Harrisons struggles, efforts and a large number of inventions that he made, including temperature compensated pendulums, counter-rotating balances etc. It is very well written, has many excellent illustrations.
Many of his clocks still exist, he only built a handful, and the most famous ones are now housed at the Greenwich maritime museum, and are still after more than 200 years in working condition, including the critical original wooden parts.
In the beginning of the 19:th century most ocean sailing ships in the world carried chronometers based on John Harrison’s design and it had a huge impact on the shipping and world trade.
The book is highly recommended for anyone interested in handicrafts, history or simply for the intriguing story.