The Longitude Story

My father-in-law gave me a book to read called “Longitude, the True Story of a Lone Genius Who Soled the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time” (Dava Sobel), after my passion for watches rubbed off on him a bit.

longitude-by-dava-sobelIt’s one of the great stories of scientific discovery and human rivalry as various men sought to win the “longitude” prize (GBP 20,000) that had been set up in the year 1714 by the British Parliament for the purpose of giving sailors a tool for determining their positions at sea. The so-called “longitude problem” had caused the death of many ships and crews to the point of affecting the wealth and power of nations, and was, as a result, considered the “thorniest scientific dilemma of the day”.

The prize was won by John Harrison, who solved the problem by inventing a reliable clock (known as “H4”, his fourth solution) that could keep time even while on ship that was rocking about in stormy seas (clocks at the time required a stable foundation for an uninterrupted and smooth pendulum motion).


The intensity of the story comes in part from the way Harrison is repeatedly passed over by the award committee even though his invention is working while other submissions are failing — the Group Think at the time centered around the use of the night sky and mathematics as the “only” solution. The earnest man challenging orthodoxy, suffering, and yet winning in the end (and becoming a legend) is a powerful motif indeed.

Regarding the clock that made him legend, I find it so poetic that Harrison saw fit to make an aesthetically pleasing movement and not just a mechanical device that would perform at sea.


H4 is is so much more than a clock. It is a work of art that saved countless lives.