Review of Sextant: A Voyage Guided by the Stars and the Men Who Mapped the World’s Oceans – David Barrie

Posted: September 25, 2014 in nonfiction, Review


The search for a reliable and portable method of determining longitude produced two instruments: the chronograph and the sextant. Dava Sobel has told the story of the chronograph, and David Barrie has stood up and told the story of the sextant. Both machines were the result of previous improvements, the chronograph descending from clocks while the sextant derives from the astrolabe and the quadrant.

Barrie divides the book into two threads – the development and use of the sextant and his own use of it. Like the chronograph, the sextant is falling out of use due to the rise of GPS navigation and Barrie felt forced to relate the importance of the instrument before its use completely disappeared, much like David Lewis did with Polynesian celestial navigation in The Voyaging Stars. Barrie’s book works as a moderator to that of Sobel’s, and proves the case that both chronograph and sextant were necessary for an accurate longitude placement.

The style of Sextant is such that it is an easy read. Barrie’s personal experience with the sextant gives him a degree of authority necessary to explain its workings and uses. He then proceeds to highlight some of the more extreme situations the instrument had been used in. Due to it being used primarily with naval navigation, these situations usually involved strong winds and icebergs or roughing it in the Pacific. The navigators Barrie selects to highlight the importance of the sextant – Bligh, Frank Worsley, Joshua Slocum, Flinders et al. – may not all be famous for navigation, but therein lies the vagaries of history.

The text is generally easy to read, and Barrie has provided a decent set of illustrations and maps to illuminate the text. There are also two sets of plates covering both the historical journeys as well as Barrie’s voyages. All that is needed now is a volume on the men and women responsible for providing the data and observations without which both the chronograph and sextant were useless. But that really is a nerdy subject.

William Collins

Supplied by HarperCollins New Zealand

Reviewed by Steve


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