cover image The Longitude Prize

The Longitude Prize

Joan Dash. Farrar Straus Giroux, $17 (208pp) ISBN 978-0-374-34636-2

Dash (We Shall Not Be Moved) pens an engrossing tale of the scientific contest for the Longitude Prize, which was offered through a 1714 act of the British Parliament in response to the devastating loss to the British navy of four battleships and hundreds of sailors. Opening with a gripping historical account of a shipwreck, the author sets up a compelling argument for the need to determine a vessel's position on the open sea. Without means for determining longitude, ""English ships had been sailing everywhere in the Western world, relying on charts and maps that often had little relation to reality."" The Parliament establishes the prize for ""any device or invention for determining longitude"" with a reward ""roughly equal to $12 million today."" (Even Isaac Newton competed.) Enter unlikely contender John Harrison, a carpenter and clockmaker, ""a loner, plain-spoken, often tactless, with a temper he couldn't always control, and a genius for mechanics."" Dash spotlights Harrison's biography as she navigates scientific and cultural history, describing the dynamics between officers and sailors. (She also mentions the role of Captain James Cook, of the Endeavour, in proving the worthiness of Harrison's inventionDCook figures prominently in Hesse's Stowaway, reviewed above). Petricic's caricaturelike drawings and the ragged-edge paper lend the volume a touch of class. Dash begins with more panache than she ends with, but keeps the suspense high throughout. Fans of science, history and invention and anyone who roots for the underdog will enjoy this prize of a story. Ages 10-up. (Oct.)