Cover image for The great arc : the dramatic tale of how India was mapped and Everest was named
The great arc : the dramatic tale of how India was mapped and Everest was named
Keay, John.
Personal Author:
First American edition.
Publication Information:
New York : HarperCollins, [2000]

Physical Description:
xi, 182 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, maps ; 22 cm
Format :


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QB296.I5 K43 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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"The Great Arc

The Dramatic Tale Of How India Was Mapped And Everest Was Named

The Great Indian Arc of the Meridian, begun in 1800, was the longest measurement of the earth's surface ever to have been attempted. Its 1,600 miles of inch-perfect survey took nearly fifty years, cost more lives than most contemporary wars, and involved equations more complex than any in the precomputer age.

Rightly hailed as "one of the most stupendous works in the history of science, " it was also one of the most perilous. Through hill and jungle, flood and fever, an intrepid band of surveyors carried the Arc from the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent up into the frozen wastes of the Himalayas. William Lambton, an impossible martinet, completed it. Both found the technical difficulties horrendous. With instruments weighing a half-ton, their observations often had to be conducted from flimsy platforms ninety feet above the ground or form mountain peaks enveloped in blizzard. Malaria wiped out whole surbey parties; tigers and scorpions also took their toll. Yet the results were commensurate. The Great Arc made possible the mapping of the entire Indian sub-continent and teh development of its roads, railways and telegraphs. India as we now know it was defined in the process. The Arc also resulted in the first accurate measurements of the Himalayas, an achievement that was acknowledged by the naming of the world's highest mountain in honor

Author Notes

John Keay, the author of four acclaimed histories, The Honourable Company, Last Post, the two-volume Explorers of the Western Himalayas, and India: A History, lives in Scotland and is coeditor, with Julia Keay, of the Collins Encyclopedia of Scotland

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Seemingly there's no rest for Keay, who since his magisterial India: A History [BKL Mr 15 00] has dashed off this captivating story about the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India. If only writing were that easy: this book has clearly percolated in the author's mind for some time, and he brings to it his steeping in the subcontinent's past, his attuned descriptions of its landscapes and climate, and, above all, an elegant style that brings to life the personalities of the surveyors. The survey was the brainchild of William Lambton, an idiosyncratic British army officer to whom no memorial exists save his crumbling tombstone in central India, which Keay had difficulty even finding. Keay dispels as much of Lambton's obscurity as the man's taciturnity about himself allows; but, when the subject was theodolites and trigonometry, Lambton was positively effusive. Clearly taken by Lambton, Keay recounts how he, through a fortuitous connection with Arthur Wellesley (the future Duke of Wellington), persuaded colonial officials to sanction his survey in 1800, officials who probably were clueless that Lambton intended to map all of India as a means of determining the exact shape of the earth--or that the survey would consume the better part of the century. The scientific cavalcade's tone altered markedly with the succession, after Lambton's death in 1823, by the more personally revealing but infinitely more irascible George Everest. Keay makes clear Everest was competent but disliked, lending a note of ironic oddity that his name, rather than Lambton's or some local name, became attached to the highest peak in the Himalaya. In Keay's hands, this once-obscure story makes for marvelous, cover-to-cover reading. --Gilbert Taylor

Publisher's Weekly Review

In this nicely detailed chronicle, British historian Keay (India: A History) portrays the arduous half-century Great Arc project as a pathbreaking scientific undertaking and as an adventure that transcended politics. He introduces George Everest, a cantankerous British colonel who, appointed surveyor-general of India, never saw the famous mountain named after him. Everest's life's work, and obsession, was the Great Indian Arc of the Meridian, a benchmark series of measurements running from India's southern tip up to the Himalayas. Begun in 1800 (Everest came on board in 1818), the Great Arc was a basic tool of British imperial domination, paving the way for commerce, conquest, the building of roads, canals, railways and settlement. Razing whole villages, appropriating sacred hills, exhausting local supplies and facilitating tax assessments, the Great Trigonometrical Survey (which spawned the Great Arc) and its sister project, the Survey of India, epitomized the mutual incomprehension and distrust that characterized British-Indian relations. While Keay gives a nod to the impact that British mapmaking had on the Indian people, his narrative, as quaintly colorful as a 19th-century watercolor, focuses on the logistics of the Great Arc (an army of men, instruments, elephants and horses hauling a half-ton theodolite and braving tiger-infested jungles), on the science of surveying and on the monumental ego of Everest, an irascible martinet whose arrogance ultimately tarnished his achievements. Maps, photos and illustrations throughout. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Table of Contents

List of Illustrationsp. ix
List of Mapsp. xii
A Note on Spellingsp. xiii
Forewordp. xvii
1 A Baptism of Feverp. 1
2 The Elusive Lambtonp. 16
3 Tall Tales from the Hillsp. 33
4 Droog Dependentp. 51
5 The Far-Famed Geodesistp. 66
6 Everywhere in Chainsp. 80
7 Crossing the Rubiconp. 92
8 So Far as Our Knowledge Extendsp. 111
9 Through the Haze of Hindustanp. 127
10 Et in Arcadiap. 140
11 A Stupendous Snowy Massp. 158
A Note on Sourcesp. 173
Indexp. 177