Picture books are one of my favorite ways to teach history because they allow you to add in interesting details that might otherwise be missed. Kathryn Lasky’s The Man Who Made Time Travel is a wonderful picture book that brings the past to life and uses an example of a specific problem to teach readers about larger topics.
We’ve all heard about how Christopher Columbus happened upon North America without realizing exactly where he was, but with the following age of exploration, I always thought that sailors had fairly good grasp on where they were going. The opening scene of Lasky’s book proves otherwise, though. Until the 1700s, sailors did not have an accurate way to measure a ship’s latitude, so while they could find their longitude, many ships crashed and sank because they couldn’t tell exactly where they were. The problem was so great that in 1714, the British Parliament pass the Longitude Act, which promised 20,000 pounds sterling (around $12 million in today’s money) to anyone who could find a “practicable and useful” way to measure a ship’s longitude.
As you can imagine, such a prize attracted swarms of people who were sure they had a solution. Ideas ranged from plausible, like the widely respected Lunar Distance Method, to preposterous, like the man who suggested using the barks of a wounded dog on a ship to accurately tell the time on land. These theories and several others are detailed in the book and will probably make you laugh and shake your head.
John Harrison was a 21 year old carpenter when the prize was announced. He had a good ear for music and knew some about math, but he had no formal education. He was a very motivated learner, though, and read and experimented to learn things on his own. When he realized that the bells he tuned for churches had much in common with clocks, he decided to build a clock, which many people thought was silly. He was successful, though, and began making extremely accurate clocks for others, improving his designs with each model. Harrison decided to work on the longitude problem and in 1735, he brought his first sea clock, H1, to the Board of Longitude, who would judge the entries. H1 had a very successful trial, but Harrison felt he could still make improvements. Over the next several decades, Harrison made more models and eventually felt he had made the best timepiece possible. On June 21, 1773, Parliament finally awarded Harrison the prize.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book for several reasons. First, the information was completely new to me. Though I knew there were improvements being made in navigation, I didn’t know any details about them, and The Man Who Made Time Travel presented the problem and the solution simply enough for me to understand. Second, this is simply a good book. The story is well-told and the illustrations are enjoyable. The thing I loved most about the book, though, was Harrison himself. He was self-motivated and didn’t let his lack of formal education hold him back, even when others thought he was being foolish. When he taught himself to make clocks, he wasn’t satisfied with any old creation but instead continually looked for ways to improve what he’d made. This one regular man made something that changed navigation–and thus exploration and trade and life itself–and impacted the world. As Kathryn Lasky says in the Author’s Note, “What puts me in awe of this man is his persistence, his total dedication to his work. He found in it a nobility that needed no prizes. To me that is the sign of true genius.”
The Man Who Made Time Travel is a great story to enjoy on its own, or it would be a great go-along for math or history, too. If you like this book and are looking for some other great historical go-alongs, Kathryn Lasky has several other books that you may want to check out!