Joan Dash's The Longitude Prize: Summary & Themes

Instructor: Kaitlin Oglesby
Time is a relatively simple thing, but for the British in the 1700s, it was a very expensive problem. In this lesson, we examine 'The Longitude Prize' by Joan Dash, which looks at the search for a ship's clock.

Finding Your Position

Imagine trying to figure out where you're located. Today, it's relatively easy. Many of us have smartphones that show our position, and there are GPS units that can locate us within a yard or so of our actual location. Needless to say, this technology has not always existed. However, in the past people still needed to know where they were. That meant doing things the old fashioned way.

I really should say ways, as there are actually two steps to finding your position. The first was relatively easy - to find out how far north or south you are, simply look to the sun at high noon (or the North Star at night). The higher the sun is in the sky, the closer to the equator you are. In fact, some charts allowed people to predict this to within a hundred miles.

Knowing how far east or west you were, on the other hand, was much more difficult back then. You had to know your speed, where you began from, and how long you'd been moving. Knowing that last piece of information was the hard part. After all, for much of the past 1000 years, clocks were the size of small houses!

It was crucial, especially to sailors, to know location. Ships could get damaged on reefs or rocks when they thought they were safely away.

This is the problem discussed in the 2000 book, The Longitude Prize. Author Joan Dash describes the problem faced by mariners during the 1600s and why the British government made finding an easy way to calculate east-west location at sea a priority. Here we will go over a summary of the events in this nonfiction story, and touch on a couple of the themes.

Summary of The Longitude Prize

In the 1600s in to the 1700s, more and more ships sank and sailors died because they simply didn't know where they were. When four warships and over 1500 sailors died in 1707 due to poor navigation, the British had had enough. So the government issued an announcement in 1714: anyone who could create a clock small enough to carry on a ship could have a massive prize of 20,000 pounds, worth almost 3 million pounds (4 million US dollars) today. All the great minds of British society put themselves to the task, including Isaac Newton.

Enter John Harrison. He's not your typical clockmaker. In fact, he's a carpenter, ''a loner, plain-spoken, often tactless, with a temper he couldn't always control, and a genius for mechanics''. He thinks that he can build exactly what the navy requires and does so. However, the Board of Longitude, in charge of handing out the reward, doesn't believe that it works. Harrison ends up making four more versions, improving them over the previous versions.

Each time he presents it, he finds out that the requirements are ever more precise and he is treated poorly. Ultimately, he is given small fractions of the prize, and while he gains some wealth in his life from his work, he never gets the full prize.

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