Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

Sea Clocks: The Story of Longitude

Sea Clocks: The Story of Longitude

Louise Borden
Illustrator:  Erik Blegvad 
Nonfiction Picture Book
For ages 8 to 12
Simon and Schuster, 2004   ISBN: 978-0689842160

The son of a carpenter John Harrison was very different from the other boys who lived in his village. For one thing he loved to learn and had a great deal of curiosity about the unanswered questions in life. He loved mechanical things and wanted to know how they worked. He was also a skilled musician playing the viol and he was a bell ringer for the village church. Being his father’s eldest son he was taught the skills he would need to be a carpenter one day.

Though he was indeed a very good carpenter John was more interested in building clocks and he built his first clock when he was only twenty years old. In addition to being interested in machines John began to think about a problem which had been plaguing sailors for hundreds of years. In fact it was such a great problem that the English Parliament decided that they would deliver a prize to the person who found the solution to the problem. And what was this big problem? It was that sailors were unable to determine their longitude while at sea and without this vital piece of information they often got lost and into trouble. The way to determine longitude was to be able to compare one’s local time and the local time in one’s home port. This may not sound that hard to do today but in Harrison’s time no one had yet been able to make a clock that could work on a ship. Therefore there was no way of knowing this information while at sea.

John began to think that perhaps he could make a clock that would work at sea, that would not lose time and that could be depended upon. So the young man got to work and he built a clock without a pendulum. Though the clock worked well, it was not accurate enough to win the prize and Harrison set about building more clocks. Always a perfectionist Harrison ended up working on his clocks for most of his adult life. He encountered many problems along the way and yet he persisted, determined that a clock could be made which would solve the longitude problem and which would therefore saved countless lives at sea.

Beautifully written in an easygoing style which makes the history accessible and interesting, this is splendid book about a man who certainly changed the world as we know it. Wonderful ink and watercolor illustrations can be found on every page and they offer not only touches of humor but a wonderful insight into Harrison’s times and life.