Longitude


It is rare that a movie or series ends up being as good as the book it was based on; the examples are few and far between. Frankly most films just can’t capture the essence of the story the book’s author worked so hard to get across.  Maybe Gone With The Wind, but that’s about all I can think of right now.

But this weekend I was happily reacquainted with a video series that does a great job of capturing the essence of the book it was based on.  The video series is called Longitude and it’s based on the classic book Longitude written by Dava Sobel.  I consider Ms. Sobel’s book to be a staple of any geographer or topographer’s library and highly recommend it.

Ms. Sobel wrote about the half-century long efforts of a country carpenter and clock maker named John Harrison to claim the prize established by British Parliament that promised to award £20,000 to anyone who develops a practical way of determining longitude at sea. For the British this was a critical issue. The Royal Navy was losing ships and crews at an alarming rate because its sea captains and sailing masters had no way of determining longitude. The British government considered ‘finding the longitude’ to be the most critical scientific problem of its day. Without accurate navigation at sea the British empire may well have died on the vine. After all, if you can’t reliably communicate with your far-flung colonies and safely move people and cargo between the colonies and the British Isles you run the real risk of losing control of your territorial gains.

John Harrison along with his son William built and tested a series of clocks over the span of 40 years, each of which improved on the previous until he reached his final design known as the H4 (for Harrison Number 4), a small, practical chronometer that was accurate enough to permit navigation to within a half degree of longitude, well within the standards set out by Parliament. It is this particular chronometer that became the design model for nearly every mechanical marine chronometer built between 1776 and the development of GPS in the 1980s

What makes the series so good is that it has all the elements required to tell a great story – a good tale, good screenwriters who understand the subject, an excellent cast and good production values. The video series was produced in 2000, five years after Sobel’s book was first published, and the film brings the story to life.  The series was originally broadcast in the US on the A&E Channel, but is now available on DVD. The story is carried by the strong performances of Michael Gambon as John Harrison and Jeremy Irons as Rupert Gould, the shell shocked Royal Navy officer who began restoring Harrison’s chronometers during WWI. The rest of the cast is also first rate and they all seem to have really gotten their teeth into the story and the historical characters they portray.

I do have a few minor quibbles, mainly how 18th Century Royal Navy officers and ship’s masters are portrayed, but overall the video series is excellent.

Here’s a small snippet from YouTube:

Do yourself a favor and either buy or rent this great series. And remember – without the chronometer England might not have had an empire. It was that critical to British history.

– Brian

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