Essay about Longitude

The problem of longitude has been one of the most serious problems mankind faced in its history because without it, sailors could not practically define in what part of the sea they were and consequently they might easily be lost. In such a situation a genius invention of William Harrison was extremely important and had a significant influence on development of sea navigation and security of sailing. At the same time, his invention was not an easy act, in contrasts, as Dava Sobel in her book “Longitude” shows, this invention was accompanied by serious obstacles and the discovery had been eventually made basically due to the great individual enthusiasm of the clock maker William Harrison.

Obstacles a lone genius faced in the solving of the problem of longitude
First of all it is necessary to say a few words about the necessity of the solution of the problem of longitude. Despite the fact that the problem had existed for a long time its solution was not found not in the last turn because of the lack of motivation. However, in 1707 the situation changed dramatically. This year Admiral Sir Clowdisley Shovel sailed his fleet, returning from a successful engagement with the French, in ‘dirty weather’.

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It is during this sail the miscalculations of longitude lead to a great disaster. In fact one of the sailors reported that his private calculations indicated that the ship was badly out of the position. However, the admiral did not pay attention to his calculations, instead he had hung the sailor because such private navigation was highly illegal, and the ships proceeded to wreck themselves upon the reefs of Scilly Isles. As a result 2000 men were lost and the admiral was killed for emerald ring. Such a tragedy forced the British Parliament, under the Queen Anne, to pass the British Longitude Act of 1714, with a prize of 20,000 English pounds for anyone who could provide longitude to an accuracy of ½ degree.

In fact such a prize was probably the strongest stimulus to get the race started. Dava Sobel underlines that there were a lot of specialists who attempted to solve the problem and gain the prize and in all probability such a prize basically caused the great competition between different specialists. Naturally such a situation could not contribute to the fast solving of the problem because each researcher wanted to get the prize and consequently did not want to share his researches with others. Obviously it retarded the progress of research significantly because the competition between researchers did not contributed to better understanding of the most effective solution of the problem that could be found only in close cooperation of many specialists working in different fields.

At this respect the invention of William Harrison seems to be particularly striking. The main reason is the fact that he was a clock maker that discredited him in the eyes of scientific elite. Obviously it was a result of a mistakable stereotype view on the solution of the problem of longitude. Traditionally it was considered that it is astronomy that should provide the solution of the problem and many specialists worked in this field and attempted to work out an effective means to define longitude in different parts of the world. In fact the scientific establishment from Galileo to Sir Isaak Newton had mapped the heavens in its certainty of the celestial answer.
Naturally, the mechanical approach developed by William Harrison was severely criticized and even rejected by many scientists as possible to accept the idea of the clock maker, which was practically revolutionary in its simplicity. Any way he decided to create a clock that could keep precise time at sea. This aim seemed to be unattainable since there were no clocks that could do it in that epoch.

Nonetheless William Harrison started to work on the solution of the problem of longitude with the help of his clock. His boldness was particularly striking in the situation when even such an outstanding scientist as Isaak Newton considered the problem to be unsolvable. However, William Harrison continued his researches for years and decades and obviously he lacked collaboration which was basically the result of unbelieving in the realization of his ideas. At this respect it is worth to remember about the huge reward for the invention which also made other specialists working on this problem more critical and less collaborative.

Eventually, after 40 years of work and struggle against his opponents William Harrison had invented the clock he dreamed about and he did not receive full credit until he was in his seventies and only than with the assistance of the King himself. Quite remarkably that though he was paid most of the money he was entitled to, it was in the form of a bounty from the Parliament, not the prize itself that was never finally awarded to anyone.

Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is possible to conclude that William Harrison’s story, as it is described by Dava Sobel in her book “Longitude”, is the story of hard striving for achieving the great goal – the solving of the problem of longitude. In fact it is the story of a bold individual who made the great innovation overcoming numerous obstacles from the part of his competitors and critics. Basically there were two main reasons for the obstacles he faced: firstly, purely natural, it was necessary to mechanically implement his ideas in practice; secondly, it was ‘human factor’ for significant financial award made other researchers very critical and practically all of them were competing with each other and did not want to collaborate, and at the same time the invention of William Harrison was so innovative and unusual that nobody really believed in his success. Anyway, the experience of William Harrison reveals the fact that it is possible to make great inventions despite all possible obstacles if the solution suggested is right and if an inventor him/herself is bold enough to cope with all problems and spend decades to prove his/her righteousness that eventually brings the universal recognition.


Sobel, Dava. Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time. New York: Routledge, 2002.

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