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Ships, Clocks & Stars: The Quest for Longitude

By Richard Dunn and Rebekah Higgitt

Published by Harper Design, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 255 pages   hardcover  $75

Reviewed by Chanel Champagne

Ships, Clocks & StarsShips, Clocks, and Stars: The Quest for Longitude tells the story of the many attempts to solve what the British dubbed the “longitude problem.” Authors Richard Dunn and Rebekah Higgitt recount the pursuit of the measurement of longitude at sea, which stumped some of the finest minds of Western civilization for nearly 300 years.

Since the early years of navigation, seafarers faced the challenge of determining their accurate location at sea. The measurement of latitude, one’s east-west position on the earth, was relatively easy to determine by the position of the sun. Longitude was not so easily calculated. As voyages began to stretch time and distance in the 1600s, the need to find a solution became more critical. Due to the inaccuracy of perceived location, many ships were lost at sea. In the long series of attempts meant to solve longitude, the British Parliament upped the stakes by creating the Longitude Act in 1714. The Act offered a reward to any individual able to produce and prove a workable solution for measuring longitude at sea.

Ships, Clocks, and Stars is an illustrated chronicle of this quest containing more than 150 photographs specially commissioned from the National Maritime Museum in London. In contrast to Dava Sobel’s bestseller Longitude, which put clock maker John Harrison at the center of a David-and-Goliath struggle with the entitled and powerful, this narrative focuses on the many people of diverse disciplines – among them astronomers, craftsmen, mathematicians, scientists, and seamen – who collaborated on their journey to solve the puzzle.

This book explores the research and many methods used to discover accurate longitude and the story of the brilliant individuals that were courageous enough to face the challenge. The efforts and significance of Galileo, Isaac Newton, Edmund Halley, the Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne, and, of course, John Harrison are all featured, along with many others who labored over the problem.

Ships, Clocks, and Stars is the companion book to the exhibit of the same name that will open at Mystic Seaport on September 19, 2015 and run through March 28, 2016. However, this is far more than the typical exhibit catalog. It is a beautifully illustrated, stunningly designed hardcover that deserves a place of honor on any shelf. The photographs and illustrations enhance the reading experience and bring the epic quest for longitude to life. Due the prevalence of today’s technology, we tend to take the easy accessibility of GPS in navigation for granted. After reading this book, one cannot but have a great respect for the scholars, scientists, and anyone who continue to seek the unknown.

Chanel Champagne is the director of the Museum Store at Mystic Seaport in Mystic, CT. Ships, Clocks, and Stars: The Quest for Longitude is available at the store or via phone order at 860-572-5385.

Special Presentation on Thursday, September 17, 2015

Ships, Clocks & Stars ExhibitionEditor’s note: In addition to the Ships, Clocks, and Stars exhibition in Mystic Seaport’s R.J. Schaefer Building, the museum is hosting “Longitude Found,” a 2-hour presentation by exhibition curator Dr. Richard Dunn, on Thursday, September 17. Dr. Dunn’s presentation, which is free for Mystic Seaport members and $15 for non-members, starts at 7 pm in the River Room at Latitude 41° Restaurant & Tavern, located next to Mystic Seaport. Call 860-572-5331 to purchase tickets.

Mystic Seaport’s Treworgy Planetarium is also hosting “Longitude: Proof in the Pacific,” a show that takes the audience along with Captain James Cook on his first two voyages of discovery in the Pacific. The program will display the stars and astronomical phenomena that helped guide Cook’s expeditions, and demonstrate the impact improved technology had on their ability to navigate. This show is recommended for all ages. At press time, the Planetarium team was also finalizing plans for a series of six celestial navigation courses. For dates, times and prices, visit mysticseaport.org.


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