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The Great Arc: The Dramatic Tale of How…

The Great Arc: The Dramatic Tale of How India Was Mapped and Everest Was…

by John Keay

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At the edge of the Welsh town of Crickhowell in the Black Mountains of Wales lies the Georgian manor house of Gwernvale, now a hotel. It was built by Greenwich solicitor William Tristram Everest, and local lore claims that his eldest son George was born here: his baptismal certificate attests that he was born on the 4th July 1790, but there’s no supporting evidence as to where. As it was not till several months later that he was baptised at St Alphage church, Greenwich — on 27th January 1791 — the legend appears plausible until one considers the likelihood that the present building was only constructed between 1797 and 1803. Be that as it may, there is a neatness about George Everest’s possible connections with the Black Mountains and the mountain named after him in 1865, with the added irony that he never actually set eyes on the world’s highest summit.

Lieutenant, later Colonel, George Everest — the name should be pronounced Eve-rest, by the way, not as three-syllabic Ever-est — succeeded William Lambton as principal surveyor of the Great Indian Arc of the Meridian, which in time became the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India. The Arc closely followed the meridian 78° east of Greenwich, spreading its triangulated tentacles east and west in its effort to accurately map the whole of British India, from Cape Comorin in the south to the Himalayan foothills in the north and beyond. The rate of attrition for the army of surveyors, their assistants and support was equivalent to the decimation of an army over its half-century of existence; malaria, fevers, animal attacks and sheer exhaustion exacted a heavy price for the inch-perfect survey.

The epic story of Lambton, Everest, their assistants and successors as told by John Keay is one of slow but steady success despite hardship, ingenuity despite disaster and doggedness in the face of almost insurmountable odds. One doesn’t need to be a mathematician — I’m certainly a duffer at this subject — to appreciate the sheer attention to detail when triangulating sites many miles distant, hoiking heavy specialist equipment carefully up towers and mountains, recalculating figures when recalibration was necessary (as it inevitably was) and allowing for refraction, the gravitational attraction of mountains, and the earth’s imperfect spherical shape. With maps and diagrams and with prints and photos we are transported through jungles, plains and uplands, reliving trials with theodolites, chains and compensation bars and savouring encounters with hyenas and uncooperative locals along with views of the world’s highest snow-covered peaks.

Lambton and Everest are the star players in this account simply because there is a wealth of documentation concerning them. Two more contrasting figures it is hard to imagine: where Lambton is calm and collected, rarely ill and always comfortable amongst his extended family, Everest is stubborn, choleric, frequently laid low with fever and irascible with colleagues and subordinates. I would have liked to have known more about characters like Joseph Olliver, William Rossenrode and Radhanath Sickdhar, but Everest in particular strides like a colossus across these pages. If you require a monument to him you need look no further than the pre-eminent summit in the world; but of Lambton and the rest their work seems to be largely ignored except by a handful of scholars. A pity, as they worked hard and suffered much for their cause.

Satellite and other technology has overtaken the painstaking work they did over several decades, but their combined efforts won’t be forgotten. In a corner of Wales, at least, George Everest the man remains celebrated, not least at his putative birthplace and by Everest Drive, a quiet Crickhowell street. One hundred and fifty years after Everest’s death in 1866 is a fitting moment to recall the Survey’s great work.


http://wp.me/s2oNj1-arc ( )
1 vote ed.pendragon | Mar 16, 2016 |
A lively account of how to map, with very low-tech equipment. We've come a long way to the present technology. It does tell why a relatively obscure bureaucrat did get the highest mountain named after him. By the way, it is EVvarRest, Not everREST, if you wish to do the right thing. ( )
  DinadansFriend | Feb 13, 2014 |
The Great Arc by John Keay brings to life the decades long endeavour by British surveyors to precisely map the Indian subcontinent. This scientific accomplishment eventually provided confirmation that the Himalayas were indeed the world’s highest mountain chain. The author explains in fairly simple terms the basic principles of mapping and surveying in the 19th century – with detailed overviews of the basic trigonometric and geodetic principles of the undertaking. This tale once gain highlights the difficulties early European explorers and settlers faced in adapting to, and living in, strange and distant lands coupled with an astonishingly high mortality rate. Keay does well to illustrate the motivation of the two central characters of the venture: the determined William Lambdon and the dogged George Everest. ( )
1 vote adamclaxton | Sep 25, 2013 |
This is one more of John Keay's little gems, and like his other book "Into India", this does the name of specific Britons a great favour.

I did know that Mount Everest was named after George Everest, but I did not know the story of George Everest and Lambdon. When I read the book, I doffed my imaginary hat at the two gentlemen several times. What they achieved, is something outstanding. Given the nature of the instruments that they had, and the difficulties of traveling in India, only passion and scientific rigor could have helped them achieve the almost impossible.

John Keay's book does great service to these forgotten heroes. He brings out the enormity of their task with clarity, and without sounding bombastic in the least. He brings their contrasting characters to life, and I am left with the feeling that we, in India, are in debt to these gents, and it is a shame that they have been so totally forgotten. Everest, at least, has a mountain named after him, whereas it was difficult for John Keay to even find Lambdon's grave in the central part of India.

This is a brilliant book, written in a manner that is revealing and pithy. Read it.
I am glad I bought it, even though I chanced upon it by accident, and bought it out of a whimsy. I am glad I did. ( )
2 vote RajivC | Aug 22, 2013 |
Interesting account of one of the major scientific projects of the 19th century - the trigonometric survey of India known as "The Great Arc" carried out by British surveyors. The project lasted decades and was overseen by two men, the second of whom, Colonel John Everest was recognized by having Mount Everest (actually pronounced Eve-rest) named after him. An interesting story for those who are interested in the history of the region, of the British empire, or in geography. Others may find it dry and tough going, even though it is fairly short. ( )
  iftyzaidi | Oct 10, 2012 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0006531237, Paperback)

A vivid description of one of the most ambitious scientific projects undertaken in the 19th century, and the men who undertook the measurement of the Himalayas and the mapping of the Indian subcontinent: William Lambton and George Everest. The graphic story of the measurement of a meridian, or longitudinal, arc extending from the tip of the Indian subcontinent to the mountains of the Himalayas. Much the longest such measurement hitherto made, it posed horrendous technical difficulties, made impossible physical demands on the survey parties (jungle, tigers, mountains etc.), and took over 50 years. But the scientific results were commensurate, including the discovery of the world's highest peaks and a new calculation of the curvature of the earth's surface. The Indian Mutiny of 1857 triggered a massive construction of roads, railways, telegraph lines and canals throughout India: all depended heavily on the accuracy of the maps which the Great Arc had made possible.

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