Before 1995 probably only a handful of people interested in the history of navigation had ever heard of the English clockmaker John Harrison and the role he played in the history of attempts to find a reliable method of determining longitude at sea. This situation changed radically when Dava Sobel published her book Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time in that year. This volume caught the public imagination and very rapidly became one of the most successful popular history of science and technology books of all time. It was followed just three years later by a lavishly illustrated expanded edition. Just one year after that followed the equally lavish television documentary film based on the book. By the year 2000 at the latest John Harrison had become a household name and a British scientific hero on a level with Newton and Darwin.
All of this would have been well and good if Sobel had actually adhered to the first three words of her subtitle, The True Story…, but unfortunately she sacrificed historical accuracy to the expediency of telling a good story, basically reducing a complex historical narrative to the fairy tale of a poor honest hero, John Harrison, overcoming adversity to finally triumph against the evil machination of his dishonest scheming opponent the Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne. Sobel’s lurid narrative proved, as already stated, commercially very successful but left its readers with a highly distorted view of what actually took place in the long eighteenth century in the endeavours to find a method of determining longitude and the role that the various people involved played in those endeavours. In particular Nevil Maskelyne was left in the popular public imagination looking rather like the devil’s evil cousin.
About five years ago a major historical research project, under the auspices of the Arts & Humanities Research Council, was set up by Cambridge University and the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich on the history of the British Board of Longitude, the official body set up to oversee and direct the search for a method to determine longitude at sea in the eighteenth century. Led by Simon Schaffer for the University of Cambridge and Richard Dunn and Rebekah Higgitt for the National Maritime Museum this project featured a cast of excellent doctoral and post doctoral researchers some of whose findings can be found on the excellent Longitude Project Blog. To date this research project has produced a remarkable list of achievements. Alongside a volume of papers on the much maligned Nevil Maskelyne, which has just appeared and which I am looking forward very much to reading,
the whole of the Board of Longitude archive has been digitized and made available online to researchers. Currently on at the Museum in Greenwich is a major exhibition Ships, Clocks and Stars: The Quest for Longitude, which you can still visit if you hurry, it closes on the 4th of January 2015. If you are uncertain whether or not it’s worth visiting, it has just been awarded the British Society for the History of Science Great Exhibitions Award for 2014! If like myself you are unable for some reason to make the journey to Greenwich do not despair you can bring the exhibition into your own living room by acquiring the accompanying book Finding Longitude: How Ships, clocks and stars helped solve the longitude problem by Richard Dunn and Rebekah Higgitt, a review of which is the actually subject of this post.
My review is actually very simple this book is magnificent. If you have any interest in the histories of navigation, sea voyages, astronomy, clocks, John Harrison, Nevil Maskelyne, Tobias Mayer, and a whole ship’s cargo of other related and interrelated topics then buy this book! I guarantee you that you won’t regret it for one second. It combines thorough research, first class scholarship, excellent writing, unbelievably lavish illustrations, fascinating narratives and historical accuracy in one superb and, for what it is, surprisingly low priced large format volume. Unlike Sobel’s, from a historians standpoint, ill-starred volume, this work really does tell the true story of the solution of the longitude problem with all its complex twists and turns giving all the participants their dues. Although written for the general reader this book should also find a home on the bookshelves of any working historian of navigation, astronomy, horology, sea voyages or just the science and technology of the long eighteenth century.
This book will take you on a voyage through the choppy waters of eighteenth century science, politics and technology and deliver you up on the shores of the nineteenth century much more knowledgeable then you were when you boarded ship and entertain and delight you along the way. It will also make for a first class Christmas present.
 Dava Sobel, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, Fourth Estate, London, 1995
 Richard Dunn & Rebekah Higgitt, Longitude: How Ships, clocks and stars helped solve the longitude problem, Collins and Royal Museums Greenwich, London 2014