Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

The Longitude Prize

The Longitude Prize

Joan Dash
Illustrator:  Dusan Petricic 
For ages 9 to 12
Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2000   ISBN: 978-0374346362

It is hard to imagine in this day and age not being able to determine where you are. We have so many gadgets and gizmos in our lives to help us find everything and anything. And yet it was not so long ago when sailors could be not sure that they were where they thought they were. They were able to determine their latitude quite easily, but longitude was that elusive creature that would not be caged. Because positions of things were hard to determine, maps were inaccurate. It was a dreadful situation to be in because you could be lost, or your map could be wrong, or both.

It was decided by the powers-that-be in London that a prize was going to be offered to the first person who came up with a way to determine longitude while at sea. Several people thought they had the answer. Some people believed that the answer lay in being able to read the stars. Others had a more earthly solution. One of these was John Harrison, an Englishman who held the belief that all one had to do was to be able to tell the "time in two places as once." Once sailors could do this they could work out how far east or west they were. Harrison’s passion was clocks and so he built clocks. In fact he built the first watch that could tell time accurately at sea no matter what the weather was like or how much the ship pitched and rolled. What Harrison wasn’t, was a salesman, a speaker. He couldn’t convince others that what he was doing had merit and that he could, and was, succeeding.

In a way this is a sad story because the author shows us how Harrison stumbles around annoying people and failing to sell his ideas to the people who mattered. Indeed the author succeeds very well all around in showing us the problems, the times, and the desperate need that existed to have a solution to the Longitude Problem. We are left with a feeling of great gratitude to those scientists and clockmakers who worked so hard and for so long to make it possible for us to find our way around our world without bumping into the wrong continent.