Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

ZERO DEGREES by Charles WJ Withers

  • Written by  Jon Wright
  • Published in Books
ZERO DEGREES by Charles WJ Withers
02 Apr
2017
Having everyone agree about the location of zero degrees longitude seems like the most obvious idea in the world. It makes all manner of measurements a good deal easier. As Charles Withers’ compelling book explains, however, the battle to establish a uniform prime meridian was hard fought.

Even as late as the mid-19th century more than 25 locales (from Paris to Beijing) were in competition, while most Europeans still used a point in the Canary Islands favoured since the ancient Greeks. More was at stake than scientific squabbling: national pride and identity encouraged countries to locate the prime meridian in their territory. The situation could not remain so messy in an increasingly interconnected world so, in 1884, the International Meridian Conference was held. Greenwich emerged triumphant, though Berlin, Paris and Washington had come under serious consideration and, as the conference president recalled, debates had ‘not been free from difficulty’.

Withers manages to turn what might have been an obscure, rather technical topic into a fascinating account of international rivalry and a meditation on what the whole business of measuring the world around us can reveal about broader cultural patterns. Perhaps the campaign to establish a uniform prime meridian, to standardise and codify, was a tell-tale symptom of modernity. In any event, Greenwich’s supremacy took a while to catch on: other cities, notably Jerusalem, continued to be touted as alternatives and, for several decades, people around the globe stubbornly stuck to their local meridional guns regardless of what the boffins had decreed.

Click here to purchase Zero Degrees by Charles WJ Withers

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in REVIEWS...

Exhibitions

Photographer Claudia Andujar has spent 50 years documenting the lives…

Films

Monbiot demonstrates the shocking facts and presents a vision for…

Books

by Andrew Blum • The Bodley Head • £16.99 (hardback)

Books

by Sue and Patrick Cunningham • Papadakis • £40 (hardback)

Books

by Sanmao (translated by Mike Fu) • Bloomsbury • £16.99…

Books

by Matthew Woodward • Lanna Hall Publishing • £8.95 (paperback)

Books

by John Hemming • Hurst • £20 (hardback)

Books

by Jean Lopez, Vincent Bernard, Nicolas Aubin and Nicholas Guillerat…

Books

by Zoran Nikolic • Collins • £14.99 (softback)

Books

by John Haywood • Thames & Hudson • £19.95 (hardback)

Books

by Ed Stafford • White Lion Publishing • £30 (hardback/eBook)

Books

In need of inspiration? Check out Geographical’s best books of…

Books

by Rory MacLean • Bloomsbury • £20 (hardback)

Books

by David Runciman • Profile Books • £14.99 (hardback)

Books

Give the gift of adventure this year with these superb…

Books

by David Sim • Island Press • £26 (paperback)

Books

by Tamin Ansary • Public Affairs • £21.99 (hardback)

Books

DK • £30 (hardback)

Books

by Philip Marsden • Granta • £20 (hardback)