Dava Sobel’s popular little book (208 pages) is pretty much essential reading for any Scientific Tourist planning to visit Greenwich. Even if you are not, or if you have already been, I think it is still worth picking up this intriguing, easy to read tale as background reading.* At its heart, as the subtitle tells, is the story of a ‘little man’ struggling against the odds, and the opposition of some of the greatest scientific minds of his time, to solve a vital practical problem by sheer (and self-taught) engineering ingenuity. Greenwich and the Royal Observatory are central to this story, and you can still see the practical results, including the machines by which the problem was solved. For more on Greenwich, see Royal Greenwich.
*But please do read my comments towards the end of this review regarding the strict veracity of Sobel’s storytelling. Caveat lector!
The problem mentioned was, of course, the finding of longitude at sea. The desperate need for an accurate, reliable, relatively simple to use, and above all, portable, way to solve this problem had been acknowledged by all the major maritime nations for at least a couple of hundred years. The Age of Exploration had revealed the vastness of the world, and the potential for wealth through trade, not to mention conquest, but without a reliable way to determine longitude, all too often both mercantile and naval voyages were a leap into the dark, with the chances of returning alive discouragingly low.