Harrison Reassessed

Jim Bennett, author of the new book, Navigation: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press), reassesses the history of John Harrison and his marine chronometer solution to the longitude problem, a story that has been popularized by Dava Sobel’s 1995 bestseller, Longitude (reviewed here).

It is difficult to claim without important qualification that Harrison solved the longitude problem in a practical sense. In the broad sweep of the history of navigation, Harrison was not a major contributor.

The Harrison story seems to attract challenge and controversy. The longitude exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in 2014 was an attempt to offer a more balanced account than has been in vogue recently. The Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne, for example, has been maligned without justification. A recent article in The Horological Journal takes a contrary view and offers ‘An Antidote to John Harrison’, and we seem set for another round of disputation. From a historian’s point of view, one of the casualties of the enthusiasm of recent years has been an appreciation of the context of the whole affair, while a degree of partisanship has obscured the legitimate positions of many of the characters involved. There is a much richer and more interesting story to be written than the one-dimensional tale of virtue and villainy.

Author: Jonathan Crowe

Jonathan Crowe blogs about maps at The Map Room. His nonfiction has been published by AE, The New York Review of Science Fiction, the Ottawa Citizen and Tor.com. His sf fanzine, Ecdysis, was a two-time Aurora Award finalist.