Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Illustrated Longitude

Book Review

The Illustrated Longitude by Dava Sobel and William J. H. Andrewes

I had already read Sobel's "Galileo's Daughter" and liked it. Sobel is a writer than can take some bits of history and turn it into a story worth reading.

I had wanted to read her book "Longitude", but then found that an illustrated version was available.

That sounded just like what I needed.

And it is a good thing I chose the illustrated version. Like the cliché says, "a picture is worth a thousand words."

The Illustrated Longitude

I don't have a long-standing or deep interest in geography or longitude. But I certainly do have both in astronomy. The finding of longitude for navigation was deeply entrenched in the knowledge of some basic astronomy from the beginning.

Even so, this book is more about clock making than astronomy. Both get fair treatment in Sobel's capable hands.

The illustrations were an afterthought suggested by readers of the original unillustrated version. I can see how barren the original must have been. I enjoyed the illustrations, especially of the clocks. The level of effort was enormous, but so was the attention to detail and ornamentation.

It still astonishes me to see what fine craftsmanship used to mean and how it has become so under appreciated.

The story here is not one of swashbuckling adventure, although there must have been some of that in the ocean testing of the timepieces. The story here is more of patience, diligence, and determination.

How many of us today would spend the vast majority of our adult lives designing and constructing just four clocks?

I enjoyed the book and the illustrations added depth. If you are at all interested in how longitude was first determined with precision, this is a good read.

Somehow, I doubt such a book will ever be written about how GPS receivers became so common place.

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