Literacy 2021: Book 18: Longitude

Dava Sobel’s account of the efforts to calculate longitude at sea

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel

Up to the 17th and 18th centuries, the problem of accurately determining longitude while at sea was considered so difficult as to be impossible. An unassuming carpenter-turned-clockmaker set out to solve the problem by creating accurate, sea-worthy chronometers, a task which ended up taking decades and pitting him against the fickle establishment of British astronomers.

Takes what might have been an esoteric piece of history and presents it as a decades-long contest, with eccentric heroes, petty villains, and shocking betrayals. Written with the tone of being invested in human stories instead of just historical details. Empathetic to all of its characters, even the villains. Begins and ends with a more personal take on why the author found the story interesting and inspiring. Contains only the details it needs to get the story across, inviting further research into the parts the reader finds interesting. I’d initially considered it a “con” that the book describes the significance of certain clock or watch components, with no explanation of what they are for laypeople, but soon realized that without diagrams or lengthy digressions not really relevant for the central story of this book, they’d be lost on me anyway.

Parts of it feel a bit like a long-form article padded out to book length; none of the material feels irrelevant or unnecessary, but it’s simply that some of the more interesting stories and details are repeated multiple times. While the tone is a welcome departure from some of the drier history books I’ve read, some of the passages feel a little bit too flowery. Occasionally too empathetic to its characters; reading a positive account of Captain Cook’s travels in Hawaii feels jarringly like white-washing.

An accessible, dramatic, and even inspirational account of a scientific advancement that I’d never thought about. It’s easy to see why it was such a hit on its release.

The Short Version
If you want to see a short recap of the central story of the book, this episode of the YouTube series Map Men inspired me to finally read Longitude.