Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Book Comments: Longitude

Imagine you want to travel by ship to England and you miss it because you cannot find it exactly? That happened quite often before the 19th century.

The seafarers didn`t have precise maps. The captains and steermen lacked the correct coordinates, the longitudes, to navigate their ships. Longitude is an imaginary line drawn from north to south pole, and combined with latitude (measured from the equator by parellels north and south of it) you create a gridt which helps finding any place on the globe you want. Without longitude captains steered their ships by guessing. Therefore sailors hit very often islands, which surprisingly got in their way. For example, in October 1707 British Admiral Sir Clowdisley Shovell and his whole fleet suffered wreckage and sank, just miles short of the safe British harbor, because the Admiral miscalculated the correct route home.

Missing the route was a big obstacle for the raising world trade and fledling economies. Therefore the governments of Great Britain and other seafaring nations offered high prizes for finding a workable method to discover correct latitude.

The book "Longitude", written by Dava Sobeil,  describes how this problem was solved in the late 18th century. As the author reports, there was a hot competition to win the bounty which the British Parliament offered in its Longitude Act of 1714. 2 competing schools tried to find ways for determining the correct longitude. One group tried to find the coordinate with the help of astronomy, the other group focused on clocks.

Sobel`s "Longitude" focuses on the clockmakers and the pioneer John Harrison. In his lifetime the British constructed four timekeepers, called H1 through H4. These chronometers would display the correct time and therefore help the sailors to determine their exact position,  thus  longitude.

However, Harrison did not have just the problem of how to construct a clock which was robust enough to work exactly during extrem and changing conditions on long ship travels. Sobel also describes how Harrison had to fight with the Board of Longitude. This organization, which was determined by the British Parliament to decide about the bounty, was dominated by Harrisons competitors, the astronomers. And his rivals did everything to keep him from winning.

In describing the lifelong fights and frustrations Harrison had to accomplish, the author gives also insights to investors. She shows, that a strong idea doesn`t guarantee spontaneous success and quick fortune. Very often an idea needs a lot of time and patience to flourish. The stock market very often shows such setbacks. This book is not just a pleasant read, it is also a cheap and pleasant way to learn that.

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