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In the 18th century, the only way to navigate accurately at sea was to follow a coastline all the way, which would not get you from Europe to the West Indies or the Americas. Observing the sun or stars would give you the latitude, but not the longitude unless done in conjunction with a clock that would keep time accurately at sea, and no such clock existed. After one too many maritime disasters due to navigational errors, the British Parliament set up a substantial prize for a way to find the longitude at sea. The film's main story is that of craftsman John Harrison: he built a clock that would do the job, what we would now call a marine chronometer. But the Board of Longitude was biased against this approach and claiming the prize was no simple matter. Told in parallel is the 20th century story of Rupert Gould, for whom the restoration of Harrison's clocks to working order became first a hobby, then an obsession that threatened to wreck his life. Written by
Kenelm Digby, who proposes to use wounded dogs and the "powder of sympathy" to send time signals to ships, is shown as a middle-aged man in 1730, but he died in 1665. See more »
The watch beats five to the second, a slight recoil being perceptible at each beat, and goes for 30 hours. The plates are of brass, polished but not gilt. The pivot holes are jeweled as far as the third wheel, that is to say, those of the balance, staff, detente, contrate wheel, fly, fifth, fourth, and third wheels. The jewels are rubies, and the end stones diamonds. It is a masterpiece, weighing only slightly less than the brain that conceived it.
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Great movie for its historical and scientific significance, a definite "10"!
Dec2004 update: I did eventually buy the DVD set, and it is very nice.
"Longitude" is a towering achievement as a movie. Shown in 4 hours on A&E network, I taped it to skip the commercials and was able to watch it in just over 3 hours. I only give ratings of "10" to truly remarkable movies, and this is one. It helps to be a scientist, and to have had a life-long fascination with navigation and timepieces.
The story is historical - the British government passed an act in the early 1700s for a prize of 20,000 Pounds for the first to provide an accurate and practical means of establishing longitude at sea. A Board of Longitude,comprising self-important scientists, would judge when the challenge was met.
John Harrison, a carpenter who understood the sun's apparent movement with the Earth's rotation, figured you could do it with a very accurate clock. He, with help from his son William, did it over a period of about 50 years, and met all conditions with his 4th clock, but the board kept throwing up roadblocks to avoid giving the award to someone who was not a scientist but a mere "carpenter." Finally, when Harrison was 80, ironically in the year 1776, was given the prize by Parliament. He died only two years later.
The ancient story was interwoven with a WWII-era story of a man, played by Jeremy Irons, who undertook to restore all of Harrison's old clocks, and finally succeeded against similar resistance that Harrison had faced.
If you either are not a scientist, or do not appreciate the magnitude of Harrison's effort, and its contribution to modern navigation, then it is possible that you would find this movie somewhat boring. Do yourself a favor - don't waste your time. For me, it remains one of the absolute best movies I have ever seen, both in significance of the story and the mastery of the acting and direction.
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