Book Review


Dava Sobel


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




New York




Harrison, John, 1693-1776.
Longitude, Measurement, History.
Clock and watch makers, Great Britain, Biography.


0802713122 (hc)

Chong Ho Yu, Ph.D.

t is apparent that Sobel's Longitude: The true story of a love genius who solved the greatest scientific problem of his time is a book for the general public rather than for philosophers, scientists, or historians who are interested in academic issues. Nevertheless, Sobel clearly presents the historical context of the longitude problem and explains why and how Harrison devoted a life-long commitment to create the chronometer. The longitude problem was a major concern among explorers and military personnel who frequently made trans-oceanic voyages. There were many proposals, some humorous, such as cutting a dog. Only two of these proposals were viable and qualified as serious candidates-the time keeping approach by Harrison and the lunar approach by scientists, namely astronomers. The latter was backed up by the scientific establishment, hence, it made the introduction of the chronometer an uphill battle. Despite all technical and political obstacles, Harrison eventually proved that his approach was superior to the lunar approach in solving the longitude quandary.

This book is a generic description of historical facts. Sobel did not address any controversial issues such as the contribution of the chronometer to the rise of the British Empire and the significance of its invention in history of science. This review will discuss the preceding two issues in the following.

Chronometer and the rise of the British Empire

Sobel briefly mentioned the role of the chronometer in the rise of the British Empire in one paragraph: "Some modern horologists claim that Harrison's work facilitated England's mastery over the oceans, and thereby led to the creation of the British Empire-for it was by dint of the chronometer that Britannia ruled the waves" (p. 153). This perspective is concurred by an editorial in Economist (1992): "His device (Harrison's chronometer) allowed sailors, for the first time, to discover where they were at sea. Britain went on to build an empire on sea power and on seaborne trade. Harrison, as much as anybody, made that power and that trade possible" (p.121).

Interestingly enough, most historians do not share the preceding view. Many of these scientists (e.g. Marshall, 1996; James, 1999) explain the expansion of the British Empire in terms of her willingness to seek opportunities for trade, land, office, and knowledge. None of the books I personally reviewed mention the chronometer at all. In other words, these historians take a macro-view that emphasizes the political, economic, and cultural aspects, rather than adopting a micro-view that focuses on a particular technological breakthrough.

History is not a controlled experiment for researchers to manipulate. No scholar could answer such a question as: "Would the United Kingdom become a world-class power without the invention of the chronometer?" Nevertheless, in analyzing a cause and effect model, the "weight" of a proposed cause can still be assessed by comparing a particular historical event with similar past episodes.

History asserts that a single technological breakthrough does not guarantee domination in the future. Space travel serves as an example. In 1957 the Soviet Union shocked Americans by launching the first satellite, Sputnik. Four years later, the Soviet Union further injured American pride by sending the first man in space-Gagarin. However, the initial lead by the Russians in the space race did not result in Russian supremacy in cutting edge technology. The Americans caught up quickly and eventually overtook the Russians by sending men to the moon in 1969. In the last four decades, the United States has been the world leader in virtually every area of high technology. The fact that Russians were not able to advance their space travel research allowed the Americans to capture the throne of high technology. In other words, history is not only a product of what has happened, but what has not happened. There are many political, economic, and cultural explanations to the slow progress of Russian's science. Therefore, a macro-view seems to be more appropriate for explaining the rise and fall of super powers.

Sobel fleetingly mentions that France attempted to mimic (or steal) Harrison's work but failed. Unfortunately, there is no explanation why other European nations, which were also interested in trade and exploration at that time, could not provide their own solutions to the longitude problem. It is conceivably possible that the Great Britain might have lost the lead to another European power, analogous to the Soviet Union being dethroned by the United States. In all likelihood, there were many cultural and political reasons why this did not happen. Sobel's book would have been more thorough and appealing if further discussion was made on this subject matter.

As previously mentioned, a single technological breakthrough could not establish long-lasting dominance. Rather, technological competition is a continuous contest between different political and cultural systems. Therefore, I assert that the invention of the chronometer is not a significant factor in empowering the British Empire.

Harrison vs. Newton

Sorbel portrays John Harrison as a lone genius who competed against the established scientific community, with Maskelyne as his main antagonist. Sir Isaac Newton was another naysayer, convinced that a precise clock is impossible and thus research resources would be better spent in studying the position of heavenly bodies. As mentioned before, history is caused by not only what has happened, but also what has not. Newton was considered the greatest scientist in his time; the absence of his endorsement was detrimental to Harrison's ambition.

Later, Harrison showed that his idea was feasible and thus Newton was wrong. However, it seems that Harrison did not get any basic media attention or due status in scientific history. For example, according to the framework of Newtonian physics, time and space are absolute. In 1919 Alert Einstein introduced the theory of general relativity and discovered a shocking fact that light could be bent. London Times printed an article with an eye-catching heading: "Revolution in science…Newtonian ideas overthrown" (cited in Pais, 1982). Whether the theory of relativity really overthrows the Newtonian physics is out of the scope of this review. The point to be made is that while Einstein received ample attention for correcting Newtonian physics, Harrison's story was never presented with a groundbreaking heading of that magnitude.

One may argue that Einstein's scientific theory is operated in the level of the Kuhnian paradigm while Harrison's technology is operated in the practical level. I am puzzled by the distinction between science and technology. The production of the chronometer requires support of many scientific theories. By the same token, the rejection of making a precise clock by the scientific community is also based upon the scientific theories they perceived as correct. When Harrison successfully made a precise clock, did it imply that a set of scientific theories had defeated another set of scientific theories? Again, Sobel did not discuss this in detail.

To some certain extent, Harrison is even more "revolutionary" than Einstein. Shapere (1964) argues that between the Newtonian mechanics and the theory of relativity, there is a high degree of similarity. It is arguable whether the two schools of physics could be viewed as different paradigms or different articulations of the same paradigm. In addition, Einstein admitted that the idea of relativity is not revolutionary and stressed that his theory was the natural completion of the work contributed by other physicists (Pais, 1982). Contrastingly, Harrison's time-keeping approach and Newton's astronomical approach definitely work under two completely different frameworks, in which little or even no resemblance could be found. Soble's book is descriptive in character. It is understandable that this type of discussion is omitted in this biography.


Although Sobel's book is well-written as a biography for the general public, the absence of graphical illustrations may make it less appealing to most all readers. It is difficult to construct mental pictures of the different technical approaches mentioned in the book. Many times I had to search websites that boast figures pertaining to the topics in order to visualize the design. Further, in this book many interesting issues relating to history of science remain unexplored. As a whole, this book serves an overview that provides its readers with a foundation for further study.



Economist. (1992 December - 1993 January). Time for an empire, 325(7791), 121-123.

James, L. (1999). The illustrated rise and fall of the British Empire. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, and Company.

Marshall, P. J. (Ed.) (1996). Cambridge illustrated history of the British Empire. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Pais, A. (1982). Max Born's statistical interpretation of quantum mechanics. Science, 218, 1193-1198.

Shapere, D. (1964). The structure of scientific revolutions. The Philosophical review, 73, 383-394.




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