Dava Sobel
Dava Sobel
Longitude:  The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time
ISBN: 0802713440
Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius
Dava Sobel's Longitude tells the story of how 18th-century scientist and clockmaker William Harrison solved one of the most perplexing problems of history—determining east-west location at sea. This lush, colorfully illustrated edition adds lots of pictures to the story, giving readers a more satisfying sense of the times, the players, and the puzzle. This was no obscure, curious difficulty—without longitude, ships often found themselves so far off course that sailors would starve or die of scurvy before they could reach port. When a nationally-sponsored contest offered a hefty cash prize to the person who could develop a method to accurately determine longitude, the race was on. In the end, the battle of accuracy—and wills—fought between Harrison and arch-rival Maskelyne was ruthless and dramatic, worthy of a Hollywood feature film. Longitude's story is surprising and fascinating, offering a window into the past, before Global Positioning Satellites made it look easy.
—from the publisher's website
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TRANSCRIPT
Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius
Program Air Date: January 17, 1999

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Dava Sobel, near the end of your book, you write, `Coming face to face with these machines at last, after having read countless accounts of their construction and trial, after having seen every detail of their insides and outsides in still and moving pictures, reduced me to tears.' What are you talking about?
Ms. DAVA SOBEL, AUTHOR, "LONGITUBE": It's true. I started this book in--in an inauspicious way. I had written a magazine article, and then I was invited to turn the--to turn the magazine article into a book, a magazine article, I might add, that I spent a year trying to sell and got the same negative response from everyone--`Boy, that sounds like the strangest, most esoteric topic. Who would ever want to read about that?' So I had a small advance for this book and never dreamed I could really go to England and see the clocks themselves. But writers often have to write about things that they see only in pictures or people they speak to only on the telephone. So...
LAMB: What are--what are the clocks?
Ms. SOBEL: The--these are the time keepers that were built by John Harrison to solve the greatest scientific problem of the 18th century, which was the determination of longitude at sea. And it had actually been a problem ever since people set sail. And the entire age of exploration was, in fact, carried out without anyone's ever knowing where he was, which is a stunning concept if you think about it. But the determination of position on the surface of the globe, although you can do it in theory--you can make a grid of longitude lines and latitude lines and say everything will be located somewhere on that grid. Actually finding where the right spots are is much more difficult, especially if you're out in the middle of the ocean. How do you determine your position? And it was, in fact, impossible for many years. The trick to knowing where you are in terms of your longitude, distance east or west from a given place, is to know what time it is in two places at once because the Earth is spinning and it goes--it's a circle 360 degrees around, and it goes all the way around once every 24 hours. So every hour's difference is 360 divided by 24 or 15 degrees of longitude. That's all the math I'm gonna talk about today. But that's the whole trick.

The problem was, you couldn't do that for the early centuries of exploration. There were no accurate clocks and even the good ones didn't work once you took them on board a ship. You can picture what happens to a pendulum on the deck of a rolling ship, let alone what the salt and the moisture does to a clock made out of metal. So for years, sailors were going on gut instinct, and much of the time, they were fortunate, but many times, because they didn't know where they were, they didn't know how far away they were from where they were going. So the land would come up unexpectedly and they might hit the rocks and sink, and all the men would drown, or they might never get to where they were going. And there are many cases of ships that literally zigzagged back and forth the Pacific Ocean for weeks--excuse me--until everyone had died of scurvy or thirst. So this was a tremendous problem. And all the seafaring nations were stuck in the same problem.

And so the governments began offering prize money to people who could come up with a way to solve the problem. And the British Parliament offered the largest sum, and by virtue of the size of that sum, it was the last offering because somebody did it. An interesting question, how--how you can spur invention with that kind of incentive.
LAMB: Now this picture we were looking at earlier of clocks...
Ms. SOBEL: Yes.
LAMB: ...w--how do you get to that room where those pictures are?
Ms. SOBEL: You get to that room--you go to London and then to Greenwich and walk up a very steep hill in Greenwich Park, and get to the old Royal Observatory, and there is a special gallery in that room where the four sea clocks built by John Harrison are exhibited, and those are the machines that made me cry.
LAMB: When did you first see them?
Ms. SOBEL: Well, I first saw them in October of '94. I had been working on this project for over a year and never thought I'd be able to go there and look at them. But one of my older brothers came to visit me while I was working on the book and said, `You have got to go to London and see those clocks. It will be a different book, and if you don't have the money to go, I'll pay to send you,' which was really a wonderful way of being propelled along.
LAMB: When did the first--this is the small version...
Ms. SOBEL: The small version came out in October '95.
LAMB: And how many of these did you sell? Do you know?
Ms. SOBEL: Well, I remember when I heard that the print amount was going to be 10,000. I was wondering where in my garage I would find room. But I believe that edition has now sold roughly 120,000 copies...
LAMB: Of the hard bound?
Ms. SOBEL: ...in the United States--of the hard cover.
LAMB: How about the soft back? Did they...
Ms. SOBEL: The soft cover I think is--is over 200,000, maybe 250,000 by now. And in England, it has been an even larger success because it's a British story, although it took 13 rejections from British publishers to find one who would allow an American to tell the story.
LAMB: So you sold--What?--500,000 copies of your book, maybe?
Ms. SOBEL: Oh, easily. Yeah. Because it's in--I believe it's in 23 languages now. So i--if you count all of them, there are lot of them out there. It--it's the dream of 200 lifetimes.
LAMB: What has it done to you? What has--how has it changed you?
Ms. SOBEL: It's changed me--the best part is being able to write another book like this because this was a--a stretch. It's not the kind of book that anybody expected to have a big success. The title alone is enough to strike dread in the heart. And yet, there was something about it. Of course, I'd love to think it's extremely well-written, but being a grown-up, I know that's not enough. There was something about the way it was presented, the cover is lovely. Even the paper was special and beautiful. When you saw that book in the store--I think at first, some people weren't sure what it was. It might have been a novel. And they went to pick it up and look at it. And then when they picked it up, it felt good in their hands. I think...
LAMB: Nineteen dollars, little, tiny book.
Ms. SOBEL: Yeah. Little, tiny book.
LAMB: But as a--let me see how many pages.
Ms. SOBEL: Oh, I think it's under...
LAMB: A hundred and eighty or something like that.
Ms. SOBEL: Yeah. Mm-hmm. Well, that was my publisher's advice from the beginning: Keep it short. This is not an encyclopedic treatise. This is an explanation of an aspect of science to intelligent people who know nothing about this subject. That's what you're trying to do.
LAMB: Who named it "Longitude"?
Ms. SOBEL: Well, what else could we call it, really? I mean, my publisher, George Gibson, I remember talked about the book to many of his colleagues in the publishing field and everyone seemed to--I wanted to call it `On Longitude' because that gave it an 18th century feel. But in the end, I--I went along with just plain "Longitude."
LAMB: So hundreds of thousands of that c--smaller version. And then--then we've got this fancy version.
Ms. SOBEL: Well, this happened because--I've gotten a tremendous amount of mail on this book. I get wonderful letters. And I--I do answer them all, slowly, but I--I do.
LAMB: You personally answer all of them.
Ms. SOBEL: Oh, yeah. Definitely.
LAMB: Sit at a typewriter...
Ms. SOBEL: Because this...
LAMB: ...computer...
Ms. SOBEL: No. I write them with a fountain pen--little notes.
LAMB: What do they say to you about this book?
Ms. SOBEL: Different things. Some people feel that no one else was ever interested in what that person was interested in before, and they're delighted to have the story told. I hear from a lot of sailors, people who collect clocks, people who are history buffs or anglophiles, people who think they're

descendents of the story's hero, John Harrison--all kinds of different letters. And s--many people complained that the book was not illustrated, that they really wanted to see the machines and--and have a better feeling for them. So I--I felt almost embarrassed by the idea. I was--it was actually my--my agent, Michael Carlisle, I believe, was the first one who started pushing for an illustrated edition of the book. And I felt, `Gee, haven't we had enough success with this book?' I mean, `Do we really have to do this?' But the letters convinced me that, yes, it really was worth doing.

And I was able to invite the host of the original symposium I had attended to come on as a co-author and select the images and write the captions so that it is a whole other book. And the original text is there, but he's done a phenomenal job--this is Will Andrewes at Harvard.
LAMB: And this one sells for $32.95.
Ms. SOBEL: Right.
LAMB: Go back to the very beginning. What was the very first time that this was even th--th--the article was even an idea in your head?
Ms. SOBEL: OK. I met Will Andrewes at a science meeting in Chicago. And at the time, I was doing a lot of writing for Harvard Magazine and he was curator of a collection of historical scientific instruments there. And we started talking about an article I might write on his collection. And I was hoping some rich alumnus would funnel a lot of money into the collection so they could exhibit some of their wonderful treasures, which are now stashed in basement storage rooms. And he began talking to me about a symposium he was going to hold in '93, of November, called The Longitude Symposium, and how all the world's experts on this topic were going to come. And I--I remember thinking, `Go wild. Seven people.' I mean, what could we possibly be talking about? Who are the world's experts on longitude? But...
LAMB: Let me--let me just jump back a minute. Th--that was almost six years ago, and you were doing what then?
Ms. SOBEL: Yeah, it was '92. I was a freelance writer for numerous magazines.
LAMB: Where'd you live?
Ms. SOBEL: I lived in East Hampton, New York, where I still live.
LAMB: And how long had you been a freelance writer?
Ms. SOBEL: Oh, for years. I used to be a science writer with The New York Times. And I left The Times at the end of '81, and I've been freelancing since that time.
LAMB: And how did you get into the science end of all this?
Ms. SOBEL: Oh, I've been--I got interested in science when I lived in Ithaca and went to a public lecture given by Carl Sagan, before he was famous, when he used to wear the same Irish fisherman's sweater every day and long hair.
LAMB: What year was that?
Ms. SOBEL: And it changed my life. It must have been 1972, something like that.
LAMB: And what were you doing...
Ms. SOBEL: It was a long time ago.
LAMB: ...in Ithaca?
Ms. SOBEL: I was working for Ithaca College. I was freelancing. I was working for them writing newsletters, alumni materials. And, of course, he was at Cornell over on the other hill. And I remember sitting in that lecture theater and thinking, `This is the most interesting thing I've ever heard in my life.' And I had been interested in science before I--almost everyone in my family does something in science. My father and my oldest brother are physicians; my mother trained as a chemist; my other brother's a dentist. So there had been science around, and I had gone to the Bronx High School of Science, but I knew that I didn't have the temperament to be a scientist. And at that time, science writing was not anything I had ever heard of. I mean, now it is a recognized discipline and there are even college and graduate level programs in science writing, but that wasn't true when I went to school. So I had to fall into it backwards.

I had, in fact, had a newspaper job as a feature writer in--in Binghamton, New York, where I wrote about science issues. And--but I--even then, I wouldn't have called myself a science writer.
LAMB: What did Carl Sagan say that day that mattered so much?
Ms. SOBEL: Oh, he talked about astronomy; he talked about the structure of what other solar systems might look like if we could see them. Of course, now these are being discovered. But at the time, it was something I'd never heard of. And he had been part of a team that designed a greeting card that was mounted on a spacecraft that was leaving the solar system, and the idea was to get people on the Earth accustomed to the idea that we were not alone in the universe and that even though this spacecraft wasn't aimed at any particular star and couldn't be understood by an alien civilization, even if they managed to retrieve the--the spacecraft, still he wanted people to be thinking about that, about having a responsibility for our behavior in the--in the universe.
LAMB: Did you ever spend much time with him before he...
Ms. SOBEL: I did. I--I wound up getting to spend time with him. Very shortly after that night, some of the students at Ithaca College who had already graduated started a small, local newspaper and they offered me $5 to do a profile of him, and I did it. And he had granted the interview. The same day he said yes to me, he turned down Newsweek. He used to do things like that. I mean, he was totally unpredictable. And he was charmed by the idea that these ex-students were now--former students were now starting a--a small paper in town. So I let him read the article and he liked it very much, and I mentioned to him that there was an opening at Cornell for the job of science writer and that I was interested in it. And he offered to recommend me. So that was--that was the start of something very wonderful for me.
LAMB: Did you do that?
Ms. SOBEL: I did. I did get that job, and I worked at the university for several years.
LAMB: And how did you find your way to The New York Times?
Ms. SOBEL: Gosh, this is like the wanderings of a Gypsy camp. Let's see if I can remember. I did a lot of writing for Harvard Magazine, and Harvard runs a Nieman Fellowship program that newspaper people all over the country go to. And just about everybody at The Times has done the Nieman Fellowship. And once you do the Nieman Fellowship, you get Harvard Magazine forever. So the editor of the news of The Week in Review was getting the magazine and he really liked my column and felt that it was very much the type of thing that was done at The Week in Review. And he invited me to--to apply. And the--the application procedure was to work in the job for two weeks on probation. And actually, the job was wrong for me because there was no interviewing, there was no generating stories the way I wanted to write. Mostly, you rewrote the pieces that other reporters had done during the week. You know, occasionally, you got to do something more original, but it was very much a desk job and I could see that I was not going to be happy.

So at the end of the first week, I said, `I'll stay the second week if you want me to, but I can tell you now this isn't going to work.' And he was very nice about it. And he--he knew there was an opening on Science Times, so he put in a few words and I wound up taking that job instead.
LAMB: How long did you do that?
Ms. SOBEL: About two years.
LAMB: New York Times'...
Ms. SOBEL: Yeah.
LAMB: Science Times...
Ms. SOBEL: The Science Times, yeah.
LAMB: ...comes out what day?
Ms. SOBEL: Tuesday.
LAMB: And where did you live?
Ms. SOBEL: I lived in New York then on the Upper West Side.
LAMB: And what years were those?
Ms. SOBEL: Ooh, I must have started at The Times in '79 and...
LAMB: Why'd you leave it?
Ms. SOBEL: Well, mostly because I had a child. And I did go back to work after she was born, but I found that very difficult. And also, I was married at the time, and my husband was very sick. And the--the stress of feeling that, `I might have to be sent out of town on assignment,' it was--it was just a very difficult time for me. So we decided that I would leave the paper and we would move outside the city and I'd go back to freelancing. And I've been doing that ever since.
LAMB: So this book, "Longitude," is now--What?--it's had paperback, hardback and now this.
Ms. SOBEL: Hardback, paperback, foreign language, now this gorgeous illus--it's also been a "Nova" documentary.
LAMB: On PBS.
Ms. SOBEL: Yeah.
LAMB: Now you're a wealthy person.
Ms. SOBEL: Well, they tell me. I mean, I'm--I should be wealthy on paper and I'm a lot better off than I was, so it--it has--that's certainly one way it has changed my life.
LAMB: Is that anything...
Ms. SOBEL: You don't expect to make money as a writer.
LAMB: Did you...
Ms. SOBEL: It's the last thing you expect.
LAMB: I was gonna ask you, have you ever s--aspired to making money in this business?
Ms. SOBEL: No. I mean, you--I've been able to work as a writer my entire adult life, which I am very proud of. I mean, I know a lot of writers who are teaching or doing something else because they can't get enough work as writers. So the fact that I've been able to do only that has been terrific. But I--I have done what I--what I think is the writer's equivalent of heavy lifting in--in some assignments.
LAMB: You mentioned earlier--and I'll go back to the symposium in a second--you--are you writing another book?
Ms. SOBEL: Yes. Yeah.
LAMB: What's this about?
Ms. SOBEL: It's about Galileo and his daughter. And I think--I would never have been able--first of all, I wouldn't have gotten the idea, and then I would not have been able to present it as a serious proposal, because history of science is not really sexy. It's not what people think will hit the best-seller list. But having had that thrill with "Longitude," it's an easier concept. There is.
LAMB: How far along are you in the book?
Ms. SOBEL: I'm quite far along. I've written it once already, but not the right way, so I'm writing it the second time now. And now it's right. And...
LAMB: And when will it come out?
Ms. SOBEL: Well, with just one or two miracles, it will come out in October of '99.
LAMB: Just a few months away.
Ms. SOBEL: Yeah.
LAMB: Go back to--a couple quick things: Where did you go to college?
Ms. SOBEL: Oh, I--I started off at Antioch College and did the rounds. I was at City College for a while and actually wound up at the State University of New York at Binghamton, 'cause I couldn't decide what I wanted to do. I remember being stuck in the comparative anatomy lab at City College during the great 1965 blackout with a fetal pig. But all the--all the places I went and things I did seemed as though they had absolutely no continuity, and they really didn't. But it's funny how that works out for you eventually.

One of the things I did while I was at City College was, I took Italian for no good reason. You know, it was offered at a convenient hour in the morning and my roommate was taking it and everybody said the professor was a really nice fellow. Well, I could not be doing the Galileo book if I didn't speak Italian. So as disjointed as it seemed at the time and as much as I regretted not having pushed myself to go to a better school and stuck with one thing, I'm happy now.
LAMB: What's the degree in?
Ms. SOBEL: Theater history.
LAMB: The '92--'93 symposium?
Ms. SOBEL: Yeah.
LAMB: When did it--when did it actually happen?
Ms. SOBEL: It was November 1993.
LAMB: '93. And Bill Andrewes and you started to work out. Your participation?
Ms. SOBEL: Well, I wasn't really a participant. I went as a reporter. And, in fact, since every magazine I approached rejected my proposal, I wasn't even going to go.
LAMB: Every magazine you approached with what idea?
Ms. SOBEL: The idea of The Longitude Symposium, covering this meeting at Harvard which was going to have all the world's experts on, really, feels like cartography, history of science, clockmaking, all the things that had gone on--into solving the longitude problem. And it struck these editors as a completely ho-hum idea. Nobody--National Geographic was interested for a while, but they couldn't see what the pictures would be, so that was the end of it for them. But even Harvard Magazine had turned me down, and I was a contributing editor; I'd been doing this column for them for years. But everybody thought it sounded dry.

And then--literally two days before the meeting, when the 500 people started arriving on campus, they called me up and said, `We've changed our minds. Do you think you could drop everything and come up after all?' So I had to go up without doing my homework. I knew nothing about it. I just knew that Will thought it was the most interesting thing that had ever happened. And I trusted him.

So the symposium was three days, and I sat literally with my chin on the floor the entire time. It was about the best science meeting I've ever gone to, and I cover these things all the time. I've probably been to two or three every year for 30 years. And this was extraordinary. The caliber of the speakers, the organization, even--I remember the--the times of the talks were listed in military notation. It was like an ethnic joke on clockmakers. And everything started on the split second. And--and if you were late, you just had to tip-toe in with your face red.

And so I went home and wrote my article, very inspired. And the human interest story--the Harrison story is--is an incredible bit of perseverance, genius. I mean, here's a guy who was completely self-educated, no formal training as a watchmaker or clockmaker. And he--you know, he's a musician and a woodworker and comes out of nowhere to solve the problem that has stumped Galileo, Isaac Newton, Edmond Halley. It i--it is a remarkable story of--of an underdog triumphing. But even after he triumphed, he then couldn't convince anybody that he'd really solved the problem and could not collect this tremendous award that had been offered.

So I wrote the story for the magazine, and they--they ran it as their cover story with a picture of the very beautiful first sea clock on the cover.
LAMB: The--Harvard Magazine?
Ms. SOBEL: Yes. So my--my publisher, George Gibson, who is a Harvard alumnus, saw that picture when he got the magazine--yeah, I often say every good thing in my life has come from Harvard Magazine 'cause it got me my job at The New York Times and it got me this book. So he--he called the magazine, he got my phone number, called me up and asked me would I be able to turn the magazine article into a book.
LAMB: What day? Do you remember what exact day that was and what year?
Ms. SOBEL: Well, it was March of '94. It was right after the magazine came out. It was the March-April issue of '94. And he read it as soon as he got it and called me immediately.
LAMB: And he's from a publishing company called Walker?
Ms. SOBEL: Walker.
LAMB: Small?
Ms. SOBEL: Small, family owned company in New York.
LAMB: Why was he reading the Harvard Magazine?
Ms. SOBEL: He's a Harvard alumnus. And--and he loved the story. So I thought--you can imagine, after a year of having this failed magazine proposal, now I have a publisher calling me and saying, `Could you turn it into a book?' And--but I was flattered, captivated, and I l--I loved the story. So the thought of being able to tell it at leisure, in book length, was thrilling to me. So I agreed to do it, but for this very small advance. So...
LAMB: Can you tell us how much?
Ms. SOBEL: Sure. Although, I--I think there are people in publishing who, to this day, don't know what it was and will be sh--it was $7,500.
LAMB: Your advance on a book that sold at least a half million copies...
Ms. SOBEL: At least a half million.
LAMB: ...was $7,500.
Ms. SOBEL: Which I think says something about the fact that the advance really isn't important. What's important is--although it was difficult living. I mean, I certainly went into debt writing a book--far into debt. And I was doing other things while I writing it. I would write a chapter and then I would write an article for a magazine just to have an income. But--so then, my--my older brother, Steven Sobel, arrived and said, `You've got to go to London. You've got to see the clocks. And if you don't have the money, I'll pay for you to go.' So I had a cousin living in London; she let me stay with her. So that was great.
LAMB: When did you go to London?
Ms. SOBEL: October of '94.
LAMB: So you'd been writing on...
Ms. SOBEL: I'd been working on the book. And that's why when I got to the museum and I saw the clocks, and it was so beautiful, and they all work and move so they are like moving sculptures. And by the time I saw them, they--they meant so much to me that I--that I was reduced to tears.
LAMB: Now which clock is this?
Ms. SOBEL: That is the first one.
LAMB: And what's it called?
Ms. SOBEL: It's called H-1. H for Harrison and 1 because it was his first attempt in this series of endeavors.
LAMB: What year was this made?
Ms. SOBEL: 1736.
LAMB: And how much do you think it'd be worth today? Or is there such a...
Ms. SOBEL: Oh, it's priceless. It's a priceless treasure. I have no idea.
LAMB: What was the importance of this clock?
Ms. SOBEL: The importance of the clock was to show that longitude could be determined at sea by means of a timekeeper, which everyone had considered a complete impossibility. Isaac Newton had sp--explicitly said when the prize was offered--and he was one of the first commissioners of longitude, who was charged with awarding this great prize--he said, `It will never be done by means of a timekeeper. The problems to overcome are too great.'
LAMB: What's this shot here?
Ms. SOBEL: That is a shot from above, shooting down into the first timekeeper to show a little bit of the complexity of the works.
LAMB: How did you get these photos?
Ms. SOBEL: Well, I didn't take them. These were all taken by the--the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich where the clocks are housed. They own them.
LAMB: You say in the back of the book that you found a little six-year-old girl...
Ms. SOBEL: Yes.
LAMB: ...standing and looking at the--what--some kind of a video of ….
Ms. SOBEL: Yes, right--right next to the clocks there are cart--almost cartoon animations of their mechanisms, the special inventions that--that made them work so well and, so, you can watch them over and over again. And they're very colorful and attractive. And she had all but fallen into the television screen. She--she was so excited, looking at this, and she kept putting her hands on it. And her father was with her, and he kept pulling her hands off it. But I loved her enthusiasm. She had gotten some feeling from these inven--there's something toy-like about them, also. And she was utterly captivated.
LAMB: Now H-1, named after Harrison 1...
Ms. SOBEL: Yes.
LAMB: ...first clock that he made, traveled where?
Ms. SOBEL: He took it himself on trial voyage to Portugal. The terms...
LAMB: From?
Ms. SOBEL: From London. Now the terms of the--of the act that offered this prize were that you had to sail from England to the West Indies and back, without ever losing track more than a certain tiny bit. But for some reason, probably because they didn't believe that it was worthwhile, they didn't want to bother sending him all the way to the West Indies. They sent him on this ship to Portugal. And on the way back, he was a--when land was sighted on the way home--the sailors thought it was a certain point on the southwest coast of England, and he looked at his clock and said, `No, it isn't. It's a different point 60 miles away.' And he was right. Well, that got their attention. And so the Board of Longitude, which had been in existence since 1714, and had never met, because there'd been nothing brought forward that was worth their time to sit down and consider. Well, when...
LAMB: How--how many were onboard?
Ms. SOBEL: Oh, 10, 12--I don't remember, exactly...
LAMB: Who was signing them?
Ms. SOBEL: ...but there were admirals, scientists, the top astronomers of the--the astronomer royal was a member of the Board of Longitude, professors from Oxford and Cambridge. This was your scientific elite.
LAMB: Who appointed them?
Ms. SOBEL: They were--hm, you're embarrassing me. I don't remember.
LAMB: Was it a government...
Ms. SOBEL: Oh, yeah.
LAMB: ...appointment? So it could've been the king.
Ms. SOBEL: This was a Parliament and they were members of Parliament, but I'm pretty sure that Newton was in charge of picking the names because...
LAMB: What was Isaac Newton, at that time?
Ms. SOBEL: Well, he'd been many things. He'd been head of the mint. He'd been president of the World Society. He had a chair at Cambridge. So he was recognized as--as the--the grand old man of science and he--he was involved in framing the language of the act. But Newton died before Harrison came along with his invention, so he never got to see himself proved wrong.
LAMB: How much was the reward?
Ms. SOBEL: Twenty thousand pounds, which is equivalent today to something like $12 million. This was literally...
LAMB: Were there a lot of people scrambling for money?
Ms. SOBEL: Oh, yes, there were.
LAMB: And what did they have...
Ms. SOBEL: But their ideas were nuts.
LAMB: And what did they have to do to win the 20,000 pounds?
Ms. SOBEL: They had to sail their method, or machine, from London to the West Indies and back and keep the longitude to within one degree.
LAMB: Now you have a lot of descriptive material in your book about these individuals. Where did you find all those things?
Ms. SOBEL: Well, having gone to that symposium was a phenomenal first step, because now I knew who all the people were, what books they had written, what museums or institutions they were attached to. So it was a relatively straightforward matter of finding source materials. And I spent a wonderful weekend at the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors off in Columbia, Pennsylvania, in their library reading everything they had on the subject. And their clock collection, which has spilled over the exhibit space, has leaked into the library. So while you're working, you're surrounded by clocks and they--everything ticks and whirrs, and some things chime on the half-hour and, oh, there's a gong on the quarter-hour, and then if you're there at noon, it's a 21-gun salute. So it was a very special place to work.
LAMB: When did you first know that you had something special going here?
Ms. SOBEL: When The Times--when The New York Times review came out.
LAMB: What was--what day was that? Do you remember?
Ms. SOBEL: It was November 2nd, 1995, and...
LAMB: Daily or those printed on Sunday?
Ms. SOBEL: Daily. It was a Thursday paper, I'm pretty sure.
LAMB: Who wrote it?
Ms. SOBEL: Christopher Lehmann-Haupt.
LAMB: Did you know him when you were at the Times?
Ms. SOBEL: No, I never did. You know, the science department was a wholly, disowned subsidiary. We were off on a different floor behind the sports department. I--I knew very few people. I certainly didn't know anybody in book review. And he--I'm pretty sure he doesn't work at the Times office. But that Monday he had reviewed the Umberto Eco novel, "The Island of the Day Before," which was about very similar topics. It was subtitled, "A Romance of Navigation in the 17th Century." And so I started to read that review and I noticed the word longitude came up very soon. And then when it came up the second time, I said to myself, `He's read my book already.' And the third time he mentioned the word longitude, I thought, `He's read my book and he liked it.' But I was not prepared for the language of his review. I mean, I--he has a very...
LAMB: Did you know it was coming in advance?
Ms. SOBEL: No, I--I--I think I found out Wednesday. I think the Times called the publisher to ask for a photo and that's how we knew that it was coming. But, of course, we didn't know what it would say. And...
LAMB: So you--where did you get the paper that morning?
Ms. SOBEL: Well, I wasn't home. I was in Miami at a dance competition--the ballroom dance competition.
LAMB: Were you participating?
Ms. SOBEL: Yes. And so I was out late that night. You know, in New York, of course, you can get the paper the night before so I knew George would be out on the street getting the...
LAMB: George--George Gibson?
Ms. SOBEL: George Gibson would definitely get the newspaper. And he called me, but I was not in control of the evening. So I got back to my room very late and he called almost as soon as I wal--he'd been calling all night long. And he read me the review over the telephone. And when he finished, I just said, `Read it again. I--I can't believe it.' So he read it again and...
LAMB: So what impact did that have? I mean, how--when did you...
Ms. SOBEL: Oh, that was tremendous because cor--everybody reads The Times and so, they immediately starting reprinting the book. And then the next day, I think, I got called by "All Things Considered" to be on that show. That was a great--of course, we were hoping you would call, Brian, but--but I'm very happy to be here now.
LAMB: And when you went on "All Things Considered," did you get reaction?
Ms. SOBEL: Yes, although it's hard to tell from the radio, as much, but, yes. In fact, I remember getting letters from people who had heard me.
LAMB: But, again, when did you see that this thing...
Ms. SOBEL: Well, that--that was...
LAMB: ...was gonna be not just 25,000 copies?
Ms. SOBEL: ...it. I mean, to--to a writer who's already got--I mean, I must've written six books before the--to get that review in The Times, that was the pinnacle for me and I wasn't really expecting it to go much better. But then--then we heard about The Times best-seller list. And that was New Year's Eve, I think, the first time it appeared on the list. And then--then things started happening faster than I could keep track; foreign editions and--and--and having it published in England. And--and when it came out in England in the summer of '96, it came on the--the London Times best-seller list at number one.
LAMB: Did you go to England and talk about this anywhere there?
Ms. SOBEL: Yes.
LAMB: What was their reaction to have an American write this?
Ms. SOBEL: It was interesting because, I think I mentioned, there were many, many rejection letters. Some on the grounds that I was American and that--somebody said to me, `The Brits don't want their history from an American.' But others were--were delighted about it. I mean, obviously, because it--it did well and the publisher there is Fourth Estate. And they remind me of Walker a lot. It's a small company and they take risks and they do things very well.
LAMB: Now I really can't pass your s--comment about going to Miami for a dance contest...
Ms. SOBEL: For a ballroom dance competition.
LAMB: ...without a--without asking more about this. Tell us how involved are you in this?
Ms. SOBEL: Oh, I'm--I'm as involved as I can be. The competition, actually, makes me terribly nervous. I hate doing it, but I love to dance. And that night when--I had a different event each day, so the next day--my teacher is a specialist in Argentine tango, so he made our whole group--we all had to compete in Argentine tango. And since that's not a popular dance, you're often the only couple on the floor when you--and that was the situation. And this is a condition that we'll--I'm going be trembling visibly, I'm so nervous. But I remember walking out there and thinking, `This is not my real life. In my real life, I'm a writer and I just got a rave review in The New York Times.' So I walked out as calm as I could possibly be under those circumstances and we took first place.
LAMB: By the way, how--when did you first get interested in ballroom dancing?
Ms. SOBEL: It was--it was just before the book came out. When I--I finished the book in December of '94, and then that spring--it was something I had always wanted to do, but I just never had the--the time. I mean, I still didn't have the time or...
LAMB: Are you still doing it?
Ms. SOBEL: Yeah.
LAMB: Are you keeping it up now?
Ms. SOBEL: Oh, yeah.
LAMB: Back to the book, I--there are just--wh--wh--wh...
Ms. SOBEL: Are you a dancer, Brian?
LAMB: Once in a great while.
Ms. SOBEL: OK.
LAMB: There are--people are gonna have to buy the book to get a lot more about the--the details in it, but there are some little things I wanted to ask you about...
Ms. SOBEL: OK.
LAMB: ...'cause we're running out of time.
Ms. SOBEL: Oh, no.
LAMB: What's the wounded dog theory?
Ms. SOBEL: Ah, the wounded dog--well, this is to show you how desperate things were. This is an idea--how do you know what time it is when you're out at sea? What if you, intentionally, wound an animal--there was at that time a--a quack cure called the powder of sympathy and it was supposed to heal you at a distance. So if you were injured in a duel, and the sword were dipped in the powder of sympathy, that would initiate the healing process of your wound. So to apply this to the longitude problem, you intentionally maim an animal and put the wounded dog on the ship, as it's leaving port. But you leave a piece of the dog's bandage at home with somebody you really trust, who promises to dip it in the powder of sympathy solution every day at the same time. So as the ship sails across the ocean, every now and then the dog suddenly yelps in pain and the captain knows it's noon in London.
LAMB: Where did this theory come from?
Ms. SOBEL: It came from a pamphlet that was written in the late 1600s by a fellow named Sir--Sir Kenel--Sir Kenelm Digby was the one who brought the powder to people's attention. And this powder, and this wounded dogs' theory, were the--the theme the Umberto Eco novel. They--they sailed their voyage using a wounded dog. And then, for a while, they--they substitute a wounded human as a form of torture.
LAMB: By the way, what do you see here on this cover?
Ms. SOBEL: Ah, you see the problem. This is the s--true story of a lone genius, who solved the greatest scientific problem of his time. And there's the lone genius and he is set against the problem. Here is the ship that has hit the rocks and been destroyed for a lack of a means to determine longitude.
LAMB: Inside there is a picture here of H-2.
Ms. SOBEL: Yes.
LAMB: What's the difference between H-2 and H-1?
Ms. SOBEL: Well, Harrison was his own harshest critic and even though H-1 received tremendous acclaim, he did not ask for a formal trial or the prize. He thought he might go home and make it better, which he did. It took him about two years to make H-2. Then he came back before the board and said, `I still don't like it. I want to go and make it even better.' And the third one took him almost 20 years, but that's the kind of raving perfectionist he was.
LAMB: And is this H-3?
Ms. SOBEL: That is H-3.
LAMB: And what i...
Ms. SOBEL: And all of these are enormous machines. They stand over two feet high, they weigh about 80 pounds, they're mostly brass--and he was building big clocks because big machines guaranteed accuracy. A little pocket watch was something a gentleman might carry as a novelty, but you couldn't tell accurate time that way. However, while he was working on the third machine, he figured out a way to build perfect precision into a small timekeeper. So the fourth one, which you have there, is only five inches in diameter and weighs three pounds.
LAMB: Why the difference?
Ms. SOBEL: So he miniaturized it.
LAMB: And d--how far did H-2, and H-3 and H-4 travel?
Ms. SOBEL: Well, H-4 really was tested on a trial to the West Indies twice. Because even though it performed perfectly the first time, the board wouldn't accept the results. Everyone was expecting an astronomical solution, not a clock. So they couldn't believe it, and they said it was a fluke and he'd have to take it on a second trial, which is--was, of course, not in the terms of the original act. But he lost that argument, and it went on a second trial and performed perfectly a second time. And the board still wasn't satisfied and wanted him to build two replicas of it before they would give him the money. So this...
LAMB: What's H-5?
Ms. SOBEL: H-5 was the replica he was then forced to build. But he was so old at that point...
LAMB: Is this H-5?
Ms. SOBEL: That's not H-5.
LAMB: No, that's H-2, let me--there's so many clocks and...
Ms. SOBEL: There's so many beautiful pictures to choose from, I know.
LAMB: Yeah. Go ahead with H-5.
Ms. SOBEL: By the time he finished H-5--I think you've gone on past it.
LAMB: Yeah.
Ms. SOBEL: By the time he finished H-5, he knew that he could not physically complete another one. And so he appealed directly to King George III, who had it tested in his private observatory, and prevailed on Parliament to give him the balance of the money.
LAMB: And how many of these clocks are, again, over there in Greenwich?
Ms. SOBEL: In Greenwich, are the first four. The fifth one is in downtown London at the Guild Hall Museum.
LAMB: Why is Greenwich the center of all this? And how--the French, you point in your book, tried to hold on to...
Ms. SOBEL: The Paris Meridian.
LAMB: Yeah.
Ms. SOBEL: Yeah. The Greenwich Meridian--when you have latitude measurements, you use the equator as your zero degree line and that is determined by nature. There's no other place on the Earth where the equator could be. But the prime meridian--the zero degree longitude line, is really a political decision. You put it wherever you want and then you measure everything else from it. So early mapmakers would run their prime meridian through their own city. President Jefferson wanted it to run through Washington. And it wasn't till 1884 that an international committee voted to leave it at Greenwich. And the real reason is it Gr--it's at Greenwich was this prize and the activity in and around London to make the determinations. And the astronomers at the Royal Observatory, who were mapping the sky in pursuit of a solution to the longitude problem. So they were making all their observations using the Greenwich Meridian as the prime.
LAMB: Did John Harrison get the 20,000 pounds?
Ms. SOBEL: He got it, but not as the formal prize. He got the first 10,000 grudgingly.
LAMB: When?
Ms. SOBEL: When the--the small clock--the H-4, had performed so perfectly on these trials that there was enough interest raised in the timekeeper solution to have him dismantle it and explain how it worked. Astronomy was something everybody understood. It was obviously correct theoretically. This little ticking thing in the box flummoxed the astronomers. They didn't know how to judge it, because they had no training in clock work and they had Newton's--the memory of Newton's warning that that was not the way to go. So they were very nervous about it.
LAMB: Who was John Harrison?
Ms. SOBEL: He was a country carpenter from Yorkshire and--and became interested...
LAMB: Was he married?
Ms. SOBEL: He was married. His first wife died, but he got married again.
LAMB: How old was he when his first wife died?
Ms. SOBEL: Oh, I think in his early 30s. And he...
LAMB: How many children did he have?
Ms. SOBEL: He had one child with his first wife, but the child died very young. And then he had a son and daughter with the second wife, and the son became his assistant and actually carried the small watch on the two voyages to the West Indies.
LAMB: What is the lunar distance method?
Ms. SOBEL: The lunar distance method is the way of using the stars to tell you what time it is. All methods for determining longitude come down to telling the time, even the GPS system that's used today. Those are perfect time signals from atomic clocks being broadcast from artificial satellites. And it's a beautiful marriage of these two rival systems from the 18th century.
LAMB: Who was in favor of the lunar distance method back then, fighting the Harrison method?
Ms. SOBEL: Everybody, all the astronomers. The whole scientific establishment wanted astronomy, mathematics, the motion of the moon against the background of the fixed stars--that was the way a well-educated ship's navigator determined longitude. You--you would make predictions over Greenwich of where the moon would be in relation to certain stars at particular times on particular dates for years in advance. And then you'd give these predictions to the ships, as they left port and the sailors would try to make the same observations where they were. And they would note their local time. So they had their local time when they were sighting these passages of the moon by certain stars. And then they would compare them to the time that they were happening at Greenwich. And then they would have a difference in time and they could compute their longitude.
LAMB: Now when was the first...
Ms. SOBEL: It was much easier to have two clocks.
LAMB: When was the first time you've ever s--you ever saw this?
Ms. SOBEL: Oh, I saw that statue of Atlas as a child. My--my father used to t--take Wednesdays off and go downtown for his flute lesson and he would take me with him. And we...
LAMB: What was your father's profession, do you know?
Ms. SOBEL: He was a--a physician.
LAMB: Doing business where?
Ms. SOBEL: A--old-time family doctor who made house calls at night to his dying day.
LAMB: Living where?
Ms. SOBEL: In the Bronx in New York City.
LAMB: Took Wednesdays off, went downtown Manhattan to do his flute lesson.
Ms. SOBEL: Yes.
LAMB: Every Wednesday?
Ms. SOBEL: Yes.
LAMB: And you remember seeing that statue?
Ms. SOBEL: I remember walking to that statue many times and...
LAMB: Where is it?
Ms. SOBEL: It's at Rockefeller Center right in front of the International Building.
LAMB: And what is it?
Ms. SOBEL: It's Atlas carrying the heavens on his shoulders. And it--it is an image for me of the--the lines of latitude and longitude--a--a powerful symbol of--of thinking about places.
LAMB: Now, again, go back to why do you think--besides The New York Times review, this book captured the attention of so many people?
Ms. SOBEL: I think because it's a story; it's a compelling story. It's about someone who stuck to his belief and followed his dream against every awful thing that was thrown in his way, and eventually succeeded and changed the world.
LAMB: How old was he when he died?
Ms. SOBEL: Eighty-three.
LAMB: Did he enjoy his money? Did he ever...
Ms. SOBEL: I don't think so. I think--I think he was very bitter about the treatment he'd received. And by the time he got it, he had struggled very hard to overcome many obstacles.
LAMB: On the back of your--the small version here--are some endorsements. And there are different endorsements on the back of the big book.
Ms. SOBEL: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: At what point in this process did Patrick O'Brian, and Diane Ackerman and Bill Buckley endorse this book?
Ms. SOBEL: Well, we went--when I was working on the book, and I talked--was talking about it with friends, people would say to me, `Have you read the Patrick O'Brian novels?' And I hadn't, but I started to. And as soon as I read "Master and Commander" I thought, `My goodness, these are my people.' Whoever's reading these books is the audience for "Longitude." So my publisher sent the manuscript to Patrick O'Brian. This was long before publication and no--none of us knew him. It was a complete cold call. But he really liked it and was kind enough to write that beautiful quote.
LAMB: He says, `The Marine chronometer is a glorious and fascinating object, but it is not a simple one and its explanation calls for a writer as skilled with words as the watchmakers were with their tools. Happily, just such a writer has been found in Dava Sobel.' Now as a writer, how do--how did you approach this--the words that you used?
Ms. SOBEL: How did I approach the words...
LAMB: In other words, when you sit down to write, how hard is it?
Ms. SOBEL: I thought you meant how did I approach his quote.
LAMB: No.
Ms. SOBEL: I jumped up and down.
LAMB: I mean, when you sit down to write this, how...
Ms. SOBEL: Yeah.
LAMB: ...how laborious is the task to put all this...
Ms. SOBEL: Oh, well, I enjoy it but--but it is work and, I think, the main work is to--to tell the story with excitement--with enthusiasm and to not let the language lapse. I--I think about that a lot. Diane Ackerman, who is also on there, is a long-time, dear friend on mine and is, first and foremost, a poet. And in our talks about words and language--she's always striving for the right--every writer strives for the right words.
LAMB: I guess what I was getting at is that, you know, in the middle of all--you talk about the science and all that. You'd come across a chapter that started out with one word: Sauerkraut.
Ms. SOBEL: Sauerkraut, yeah.
LAMB: What was that about?
Ms. SOBEL: Well, the big problem on sailing ships in those times was scurvy. The--the diet aboard the ships was unbelievable. If it hadn't been for the rum and wine, they all would've starved to death. They got most of their calories from that. But they really didn't have good food to eat and they, certainly, didn't have fresh vegetables. And vitamin C is not something the body can do without for long--it starts to come apart. And scurvy is a particularly unpleasant illness. So when sauerkraut was found, it could--here's something: not only does it has some vitamin C in it, but it keeps forever so you don't have to worry about it. And it was--it was very helpful.
LAMB: What was your reaction when you saw this illustrated version for the first time?
Ms. SOBEL: Oh, I was thrilled with it. I never expected it to be quite as handsome as it is.
LAMB: Did you have anything to do with the actual picking of the photos and all?
Ms. SOBEL: No, Will Andrewes really did all of that. I did go over the captions. We worked on--on that together, but hi--it was his choice. Although, I was looking at that picture just yesterday. I looked in the photo credits and realized that that is my photograph...
LAMB: This photograph right here?
Ms. SOBEL: ...of Harrison's tomb. So I'm...
LAMB: Why did you decide to put the gravestone in the book?
Ms. SOBEL: Well, the gravestone is very important because that--all that writing you see there is the story of the longitude prize. And the--the stone was maintained and--and cared for by the guild, the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, even though Harrison had never been a member of it in his lifetime. So I think the tombstone shows their respect for him and it's--it's really quite a lovely thing that they've done.
LAMB: Where can you find that gravestone?
Ms. SOBEL: It's in Hampstead--in London, at St. John's Church.
LAMB: And of all the things in the book, what's your favorite illustration or photo?
Ms. SOBEL: Well, I--I--I probably would have to say H-1--that that picture is the most meaningful to me.
LAMB: H-1?
Ms. SOBEL: Yeah.
LAMB: What's a K-1, by the way?
Ms. SOBEL: K-1 stands for Kendall Larcum. Kendall was another watchmaker at that time and he built a replica that was taken on the voyage by Captain Cooke. Harrison's fourth timekeeper was never allowed outside the country again, till recently. It was actually--I saw pictures of it at the Naval Observatory where it visited in 1963.
LAMB: This is H-1.
Ms. SOBEL: This is H-1.
LAMB: And why do you like this?
Ms. SOBEL: I love it because it's beautiful. Because it is really the object that Harrison carried himself to Lisbon, Portugal, and back--seasick all the way; that it was the invention that made the idea feasible. And because its appearance on the cover of the magazine led to everything else. So I feel a particular affinity for that...
LAMB: I kind of asked you this e--this earlier, about how it's changed your life. How has the success changed your life in your day-to-day pattern, your celebrity...
Ms. SOBEL: I still wake up at 4:00 and go to work in my jammies and--no, that hasn't changed.
LAMB: You write early?
Ms. SOBEL: Yeah. And what's changed is that I don't have to be doing a dozen other things at the same time. The luxury of writing only one thing is indescribably wonderful for me. And so I have been able to immerse myself in the Galileo project in a way that I've never been able to do before. And sometimes I worry maybe it's too much, you know. Maybe--maybe I shouldn't be so lost in it.
LAMB: You mentioned earlier you had a--a daughter?
Ms. SOBEL: I have a daughter, but he had a daughter, which is what the book is about.
LAMB: But I mean, how--how many children do you end up having overall?
Ms. SOBEL: Myself?
LAMB: Yeah.
Ms. SOBEL: I have two children.
LAMB: What are they?
Ms. SOBEL: A 17-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy.
LAMB: Either one of them writers?
Ms. SOBEL: They both write very well, but neither one is interested in becoming a writer.
LAMB: What do they think of mother's success?
Ms. SOBEL: Well, they're very proud of me. They're--they're happy about it.
LAMB: How about your brothers you mentioned in your...
Ms. SOBEL: They're thrilled, both of them. And this is--this has been a treat for them. Of course, my mother, who really is a celestial navigator--and I dedicated the book to her. And this book was such a family joke at the beginning that I said in the dedication that she could sail by the stars but always drives by way of Canarsie, because who thought anybody would read this book? And now I have people all over the world asking me: `What is Canarsie?' Do you know? It--it's--it's a neighborhood. It's--it's the end of the line in darkest Brooklyn, the end of the subway line. And it's near where she grew up. So when you go by way of Canarsie, that means you have taken the longest possible way around and had the scenic route, but probably gotten yourself really lost.
LAMB: And is your mother a celestial navigator?
Ms. SOBEL: Yes. Yes.
LAMB: And what--where does--how does she use it?
Ms. SOBEL: She te--she doesn't use it anymore, but when my father was alive, they did a great deal of sailing. And she learned it because he got interested in boats. So...
LAMB: She's still alive?
Ms. SOBEL: She is, yes.
LAMB: And your father died when?
Ms. SOBEL: In 1992.
LAMB: We're out of time. Thank you, Dava Sobel. This is your book, the illustrated version of "Longitude." Thanks for joining us.
Ms. SOBEL: My pleasure.


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