Longitude by Dava Sobel (London, United Kingdom)

A ‘previous concept’ post.

The great thing about big and famous cities is that they let you create personal cult artefacts out of your lived experience, as well as crane your neck like a tourist to see those made famous by others. This bookshop caught me on the way to the iconic Portobello Road, a place baggaged with plenty of cultural cool. Headed for the infamous blue door of Notting Hill (which is actually not there anymore, having been sold at an auction) or the blue plaque marking George Orwell’s old lodgings, you can easily miss the Book & Comic Exchange. Especially if you are used to books exuding a lot of lustre.

This second-hand bookshop is in no way glamorous – it is cramped, old, and does not beckon with baubles and the literary champagne of scribbled reviews of this and that recommended read. If you go in searching for a specific new title, most likely it won’t be there, or if it is, you won’t be able to locate it. What you can do, though, is while away ages deposing books from their shelves whilst literally rubbing shoulders with fellow literature aficionados.

Perhaps most tellingly, this place made me completely fail in terms of self-restraint. I walked out not with one, but three books. Still, given the wonderfully random collection of alluring titles, and the ridiculously affordable prices, it’s debatable whether it was lack of self-control or just good bibliophile investment.

The focus here is, of course, on the truly spontaneous choice. Longitude, by Dava Sobel, recounts the history of time-keeping, and its evolution towards ever sharper accuracy. This was propelled by the increasingly desperate need of seafarers to have a reliable way of telling their whereabouts. It is also inevitably linked to the story of the Englishman John Harrison and his life-long work, including overcoming all sorts of obstacles that stood in the way of creating the perfect marine chronometer.

My immediate attraction to this story about telling time aboard a ship comes from a lasting love of the sea/ocean, and the stories which this vast expanse of water has inspired. From the Bulgarian poet Hristo Fotev’s rhymes about the Black Sea, to Ocean Sea by Alessandro Baricco and We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen, I sink in them all with Legolas’ lament, “Alas! for the gulls. No peace shall I have again under beech or under elm”. The ocean sea is so vast and immutable but relentlessly travelled that it is easy to forget it was ever different, that it too used to be wild and uncharted before it was domesticated. Even the greatest explorers got lost at sea.

Parallels and meridians slice the world in chunks; or they are rather like a net thrown over the globe, with humanity left to blunder around, trapped between the rough edges of its ropes. Finding longitude was not always a simple thing, and, annoyingly, it was inextricably linked to time(-keeping). It required setting time at the meridian of reference at local noon and comparing it to the (recorded) time in the home port, in order to calculate the distance from the latter, in degrees (one hour of difference between the two being equal to fifteen degrees of longitude).

John Harrison’s creation of a precise mechanical timekeeper came after years of only partially successful attempts to attain accuracy. Astronomy with its focus on the clockwork universe offered a way out of the difficulties – the sun, the stars, and the moon all seemed to hold promises, but the associated methods either depended on clear weather, rare celestial events, or knowledge that required advanced technology. Galileo saw a potential solution in observing the moons of Jupiter – this, however, required equipment that was not practicable on a ship. Interestingly, his idea later served to advance mapmaking, and prompted the comment of Louis XIV that he was losing more territory to his astronomers than to his enemies.

Then there were the ridiculous and cruel methods, such as the wounded dog theory. A substance called powder of sympathy was sprinkled on a weapon which had been used to injure a dog. The dog would then be sent off on the ship. Each sprinkle, which would be performed in the home port at certain pre-determined times, would supposedly cause the wounded dog to yelp in pain (while somehow healing its wounds, too), and, that way, the animal would announce the (home port) time through its suffering.

The big problem, of course, was that a ship which has lost its way often sails towards destruction. In 1707, a British naval fleet was obliterated by the rocks off the Isles of Scilly when the ships couldn’t calculate their bearings. More than 1,400 sailors died. In the wake of that disaster, Parliament passed the Longitude Act 1714, which established a Board of Longitude, meant to encourage and examine new methods. John Harrison, the hero of Longitude, is mysteriously lacking in formal education or apprenticeship to any famous clockmaker. He worked as a carpenter, and his mastery of that trade is evident in his wooden clocks. During the course of his life, he made numerous mechanical timekeepers which were presented to the Board. He could have claimed the prize at an early stage, but the reason for his many attempts and years and years of labour, was that he himself pointed out of the flaws of his works, in a desire to reach perfection. In the competition with those certain that a solution would come from the clockwork universe and not from lowly, earthly mechanics, Harrison and his timekeepers suffered great injustice. Until, of course, they were vindicated in the most fitting way – by the passage of time itself.

Dava Sobel has travelled to the Clockmakers Museum in Guildhall and to the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, both of which house creations by Harrison. Her immersion in the story is enviable, and is most touching when she recalls the moment she finally sees the timepieces about which she has read so much.

Longitude immerses you in a tale of astronomy, clockmaking, voyages by sea, the stubborn determination of not one but many men, their mistakes, failures and triumphs. And all of this sprinkled with the absurdity of what could easily be fiction, but, miraculously, is not.

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