Lost at Sea ­ The Search For Longitude: A spellbinding and entertaining story

Film Review by Carolyn Winter

It is rare to find a film that not only educates but weaves a spellbinding and entertaining story. Produced by WGBH Productions and aired on PBS, the Lost at Sea ­ The Search For Longitude, proves to be one of those rare finds. Based on the novel, Longitude, by Dava Sobel, this film tells the story of the Englishman, John Harrison, who is solely responsible for the discovery of determining longitude at sea. The film addresses the theories of navigation: astronomical timepieces versus mechanical clocks, intelligentsia versus the common laborer, and critical question of scientific discovery ­ the value of theory versus experimentation. Harrison’s captivating lifelong struggle exposes ironies associated with scientific discovery, and the opposing forces that can derail innovation.

In the early 1700s, the question that had all the great scientists stumped was how to determine longitude at sea. At that time, only latitude could be accurately measured and ships of all nations would sail along the same route, where the conditions were good, which was troublesome during wartime and for merchants defending against piracy. England knew it could have control of the world’s economy if it could calculate longitude. The Parliament offered an enormous financial prize to the person who could solve this riddle. A board of distinguished minds, led by Sir Isacc Newton, was formed to oversea the submissions, testing and awarding of the prize. Little did they know, the answer was not the one they vehemently defended ­ the use of celestial bodies to calculate longitude ­ but in the accuracy of timepieces built by the lone clockmaker, John Harrison.

Reinforced with captivating narrative by Richard Dreyfuss and a solid performance by actor Patrick Malahide, the producers do a wonderful job of showing the audience the enormity of the struggle Mr. Harrison faced. During that time, ships measured their speed and latitude with crude instruments that were far from accurate. The director, Peter Jones, takes us on board a ship, the horizon visibly oscillating on the screen in front of us, and we clearly see the futility of the primitive tools the early navigators used. The producers seemed to have found every visual medium available to add interest to the show. They flash on the screen etchings of early submissions to the board, historical paintings, portraits of people mentioned and computer graphics to complement the narrative.

The film can also be used as an exemplary example of how to captivate an audience with expert and personal testimony. The editors’ knack for picking the perfect expert quote enhances the storyline. Throughout the production, we hear from the author of the book, historians and a man who winds one of Harrison’s clocks still operational today. Their enthusiasm for the man who was 150 years ahead of his time, solving the greatest mystery of that time, adds excitement to the film that is contagious.

The film can be enjoyed by all audiences, especially science buffs, and is a great classroom tool. Students will learn about longitude and the value of good scientific method. John Harrison, a regular country fellow, changed the way we navigate the earth with his lifelong dedication to his craft, perseverance and his meticulous record keeping and experimentation. In an age of instant gratification, shiftless youths and the desire for early retirement, Mr. Harrison’s example of pursuing his lifelong passion ­ on principle, not greed ­ is a good reminder for us all.

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Page Last Updated: 16 January 2006.