"Longitude", by Dava Sobel

Essay by aztec222High School, 11th gradeA-, March 2004

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Longitude does not seem to be a topic that would set the reader's interest and imagination racing, but Dava Sobel manages to make what is a seemingly boring topic into a tale that is gripping, exciting and educational. She does this by the quality of her writing. She has the happy knack of being able to describe technical and often difficult topics with a grace and clarity that is enchanting. She makes the era come alive and gives the reader a real understanding of those times. By so doing she provokes sympathy in the reader for the times and the immense achievements of the clockmaker Harrison whose life-long work was to change forever how we travel and trade.

Dava Sobel uses clear and direct writing with plenty of well-used parts of speech, for example; "The Board of Latitude slapped Mudge's wrist." She uses dramatic construction, such as short paragraphs; "In comparison, John Harrison offered the world a little ticking thing in a box.

Preposterous!" Examples such as these are used continually throughout the text which consequently engages the reader.

The text is written logically with events coming in chronological order. Dava Sobel gives the reader a good solid background of the events prior to Harrison's discoveries. She tells the reader in detail why the world needed to find the longitude and methods prior to Harrison's clocks. This gives the reader a good understanding of the pressures that the people faced and how they were dealing with them.

Sobel tracks Harrison's progress in the race for longitude, and all the travails and mistreatment he experienced in that time. Little is known of Harrison's life, but he was a "mechanic" in the bitter rivalry between the astronomers and the "mechanics". It is the struggle between these two factions and the way she...