The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

by Dava Sobel

2021-01-13 – 2021-01-16


Even by the late 1800s when trade routes spanned continents, ocean sailing was a desperate gamble, primarily because sailors had no way to far they had gone. England sponsored a competition to find a way to make it less dangerous, and a country carpenter answered the call by building an accurate timepiece. But the scientific elite would not have their work on an astronomical solution cast aside, and worked to deprive Harrison of his prize.

Rating ★★★★☆

It’s made abundantly clear why knowing your longitude at sea is important for navigating by pointing out disasters that could have been averted with more spatial awareness. The story is centered around John Harrison, a carpenter-turned-clock maker, who’s attention to detail and understanding of kinematics led to a reliable timekeeping device that could be used to position a ship at sea. At the same time, a group of astronomers were trying to use the moon and star positions with the same goal, leading to a feud between engineering and science. In the end, the maritime clock won out because it was easier to use, but not without drama. I wish I could have read the subsequent illustrated version of the book so the mechanisms and astronomical explanations could have been streamlined.