The Longitude Prize

by Joan Dash and Dušan Petričić

Many sailors once perished at sea because they had no way of accurately determining... read more

Many sailors once perished at sea because they had no way of accurately determining where they were. In 1714, the British Parliament passed the Longitude Act, officially offering an “enormous sum, roughly equal to $12 million today, and lesser awards were offered for partial solutions” to the dilemma. Sir Isaac Newton and Edmond Halley were among the noted scientists who attempted to win the prize, along with many of the “wildest crackpots.” John Harrison, a carpenter who lived in an isolated village almost 200 miles from London, enjoyed making and tinkering with clocks in his spare time. Harrison was highly intelligent but not formally educated. He was a single-minded rural person, not part of the elite class of men running the maritime, governmental, and society life of the 18th century. He was a “loner, plain-spoken, often tactless, with a temper he couldn’t always control, and a genius for mechanics.” These personal circumstances caused Harrison to frequently fail and finally succeed throughout the decades he needed to prove his sea-clocks. He did not win the prize. No one did. Today Harrison’s inventions can be seen in the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, and his works are studied by scholars. A well-documented, stimulating account of Harrison’s tenacity along with a graphic description of what it was like to be at sea during that century. (Ages 11-16)

© Cooperative Children's Book Center, Univ. of Wisconsin - Madison, 2001

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