Something Neat! A Longitude Article and Book Review


Patrick Malahide as John Harrison

RFodchuk recently found a smashing article promoting the 1998 “Longitude” documentary movie, Appreciation recap here.  It is an excellent adaptation, and Patrick Malahide does a fantastic job of bringing the driven and feisty John Harrison to life.  And what a life it was.  Harrison’s unrelenting work in building high precision timekeepers to establish longitude at sea saved countless lives and also probably many economies.  Without him, Britannia may not have Ruled the Waves as she did.

I recently read and thoroughly enjoyed Dava Sobel’s very well-written book “Longitude” on which the movie is largely based.  My enjoyment was even more enhanced by being able to use Mr. Malahide’s performance as a backdrop in my mind’s eyes and ears.

I found this part in the BBC article amusing, discussing Harrison’s writings

Yep, he has a lovely Yorkshire accent.

“[Dava] hadn’t made much use of them in her book,” says the programme’s director Peter Jones, “and when we turned to them, we could see why. They are immensely difficult to follow and are almost impenetrable.”

But by reading and re-reading, Jones and his team were able to see elements that would make the basis of useable dialogue – elements built on by Malahide and his knowledge of the Yorkshire accent.

Sobel does indeed make note of Harrison’s peculiar (even by the standard of his time) style of writing.  From her book:

This makes more sense than his writings.

Summarizing the essence of his conversion chart in a handwritten heading, Harrison called it “A Table of the Sun rising and Setting in the Latitude of Barrow 53 degrees 18 Minutes; also of difference that should & will be betwixt ye Longpendillom & ye Sun if ye Clock go true.”  This description owes its quaint sound partly to its antiquity, and partly to ambiguity.  Harrison, according to those who admired him most, never could express himself clearly in writing.  He wrote with the scrivener’s equivalent of marbles in the mouth. No matter how brilliantly ideas formed in his mind, or crystallized in his clockworks, his verbal descriptions failed to shine with the same light.

Here he has bread in his mouth instead of marbles 😀

I have to laugh at “marbles in the mouth” to describe the writings.  But, fortunately, Patrick Malahide was very easy to understand and delightfully conveyed Harrison’s utter tenacity and depth of spirit.  Harrison’s inelegant writing combined with his dogged stubbornness come across vividly in this passage

His last published work, which outlines the whole history of his unsavory dealings with the Board of Longitude, brings his style of endless circumlocution to its peak.  The first sentence runs on, virtually unpunctuated, for twenty-five pages.

“I’m so going to put that in my blog!”

Thank gawd he didn’t have a blog.  Of course, no one can blame him for ranting about his mistreatment by the Board of Longitude.  He encountered numerous obstacles, mostly in the form of snobby astronomers.  It started out well enough for him because the first Astronomer Royal he dealt with was Edmond Halley.  Halley liked a good drink and swore like a sailor.  He was most certainly not a snob and got on well with the bluff Harrison.

But, as the years ticked by (pun intended), Halley passed away and was replaced by a succession of gentlemen who were most unfriendly to Harrison’s mechanical approach to a problem they viewed as having only a celestial answer.  Well, la-di-da-da. Even when Harrison’s timekeeper was proven effective they thought it was too good to be true.  In the Patrick Malahide version of “Longitude” we get to see some of Harrison’s vexation about that attitude with these lines

 Nay, my timekeeper is beyond the reach of both the latitude and the longitude of these villainous priests of Cambridge and Oxford. The trouble with which these “lunar men” have occasioned me….

The Astronomer Royal has seized his time-keepers for “further tests”.

Villainous priests.  🙂 It culminates in the boo-hiss villainy from the Rev. Dr. Nevil Maskelyne who himself was a solid contender for the prize.  Indeed, his own works in lunar mapping  proved to be massively helpful to sea navigation, so it isn’t like he was a total boo-hisser.  His lunar tables combined with Harrison’s timekeeper method really gave sailors a massive advantage.

But, Maskelyne genuinely hampered Harrison’s work by being allowed to study his sea clock and didn’t take the best of care with  it.  Not only that,   the goal posts for the prize were regularly being moved further and further away from Harrison.  Little wonder he saw them as “villainous priests” then.

So, the story of Longitude, in both televised form and book form, is a fascinating one.  Dava Sobel writes in a clear, easy-to-understand manner (so, not like Harrison, then) that kept me engaged.  And, of course, the Patrick Malahide tv movie is simply wonderful.  Both versions give great insight to a truly great man.

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