In defence of Longitude

I spotted this tweet earlier and it made me smile: 

I’ve had a soft spot for Harrison “the underdog” ever since I saw the TV adaptation of Dava Sobel’s book Longitude when I was, oh about 14. Inevitably since then I’ve discovered that Sobel’s representation of Harrison, and more importantly of Neville Maskelyne, was somewhat unfair. I know this as a historian, but despite that I can still happily watch the dramatisation without too much discomfort.

There are a couple of good reasons for this. One is that Sobel tells an excellent story of one man’s quest to achieve something seemingly forbidden to him. It’s a classic rags to riches story and you’re routing for the underdog throughout. Admittedly a lot of the story isn’t based in fact, but I’m able to get over this because of that second good reason.

The second reason is something very personal. Longitude is one of the things that set my on my current career path. I can quite confidently ascribe my reason for studying history of science to three things: a children’s book about Faraday (rags to riches again – clearly I’m susceptible!), the TV dramatisation of Sobel’s Longitude and the fantastic programs Adam Hart Davis used to make (Local Heroes and What the Victorians / Romans / etc. Did For Us). Whenever I encounter any of those things I’m returned to a naive state of just enjoying a good story.

Probably, as a professional curator in a national museum I shouldn’t admit to such weaknesses. I certainly wouldn’t try to put on an exhibition about John Harrison that simply repeated Sobel’s story, because of its various failings. However, it is worth noticing that a few great stories were what got me doing history of science in the first place. This is especially important given that I stopped anything to do with history at the earliest opportunity at school, in fact I dropped the subject entirely at the age of 14 (an odd coincidence?), finding it an unbelievably dry and tedious subject.

Telling historically honest stories is a really important part of a historian’s work, and one that will become even more important if the proposed reforms to the curriculum go through; more and more students will recoil from learning about their past if the only way they encounter it is a series of dry facts to memorise and regurgitate in an exam. We need to be as outgoing about sharing our discoveries and inspirations as possible, after all our past is the most valuable resource we have for making decisions about our future.

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  1. Glad my original tweet inspired you to write! I nearly passed Harrison by – it was only when I saw that he died on his birthday that I decided to mention him.
    I find it fascinating that people come back to history. At seven I KNEW I would be a historian. When my life got hijacked into becoming a lawyer I KNEW I would return to my first love eventually. It’s been a long wait – but worth it!

  2. I think my school teachers would be very confused to find out where I ended up – I dropped all the humanities as soon as I could, only keeping up music and theatre studies (doing strictly technical things like lighting) from the arts. But I definitely agree with you that it’s worth it to be doing research. There’s nothing quite like uncovering amazing people who did astonishing things, and better still sharing those stories with a captive audience!

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