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The Great Arc: The Dramatic Tale of How India Was Mapped and Everest Was Named Paperback – July 31, 2001

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Seemingly there's no rest for Keay, who since his magisterial India: A History 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
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial (August 1, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060932953
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060932954
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,341,418 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

21 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Amazon Customer on February 25, 2001
Format: Hardcover
...a whole book about some dusty old surveyors, trigonometric measurements, arcs of meridian and strange measuring devices called theodolites. Yes, and brilliantly done too and immensely readable. It's hard to believe that a book about such arcane subjects as those mentioned above could be made interesting - but Keay has done it.
There is no need no know trigonometry, cartography or any '-phy' for that matter. The book is short and so spends very little time on the technicalities of the subject, instead focusing more on where the interesting parts are always to be found - in the people and the places of these historical adventures. But what got the people - firstly Colonel William Lambton and then Sir George Everest (1790-1866), following Lambton's death in 1823, to the place - India, in the first place. An adventure in mapping. At the start of the 19th century cartography was still very basic. There were no standards of measurement or common method for portraying relief features such as mountains. Many parts of the world had not been surveyed and a complete grid of latitude and longitude lines covering the Earth was still decades away. The arc of the story was simply a part (a large part) of one such a line of longitude.
Lambton was like many surveyor's of the day in that it was typically the army that undertook these mapping projects, but what was not typical, was the man himself and the size of the project. Mapping India was a mammoth project and underlying it was Lambton's ultimate goal of obtaining an accurate measurement of the Earth. Thousands would be involved, it would take decades and outlast Lambton himself. The task would be finished in 1843 by Sir George Everest who would, along the way, have his name recorded for posterity on a certain Himalayan Mountain.
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Mark Howells on November 11, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a fun, short read.
The British Great Trigonometrical Survey of India was an epic undertaking spanning decades which took the measure of the sub-continent.
The book is a brief but lively biography of the two men who headed the survey - William Lambton and George Everest. The progress of their efforts across the Indian landscape makes for fascinating reading.
The amazing accomplishments of the Survey in the face of fever, tigers, and other resistance are highlighted in the book. The naming of Mount Everest is but an historical afterthought to the incredible saga of the Survey itself.
This entertaining and highly readable book does touch on some of the social, political, and scientific ramifications of Survey - but only briefly. The narrative is driven by the progress and setbacks of the Survey itself.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Efs Danson on November 3, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This is a most enjoyable read, much of the country is familiar (I recall my first sight of the mountains - incomprehensibly BIG!)and I could almost feel the heat of the plains and taste the dust. I would have liked to have seen some more of the country and felt that awful intensity when meeting some of the more interesting jungle wild life face to face. As a professional surveyor I skipped over some of the simplified explanations - at first. Going back over them I found some to be a little too trite - more could have been done to make the 'mechanics' of surveying a little more vibrant. The repeated use of 'one second of one minute of one degree' gets a bit irksome and is incorrect usage. Also, Nevil Maskelyne was never knighted; correctly (by the time of the story) he is the Reverend Nevil Maskelyne DD FRS, Astronomer Royal.
My recommendation - Buy 'The Great Arc' - its a book long overdue, a cracking good yarn and an entertaining read. PS - congratulations on finding Lambton - dead and alive. But where is the Indian Foot?
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Dana Keish on February 11, 2002
Format: Paperback
Similar scientific biographies such as this book have become quite common. Longitude and Riddle of the Compass are two that come to mind. I personally enjoy such books as they usually take something that most modern people take for granted and explain the work and effort that went into various types of discoveries.
The Great Arc is an interesting story of a very difficult subject. A survey of the Indian sub-continent was not only difficult due to the distances and the lack of computers to crunch the unbelievable amount of data, but also the weather and the various illnesses that seem to decimate these kinds of endeavors. William Lambton, who most people have probably never heard of, takes it upon himself as an officer in the British Army, to begin a survey of the Indian sub-continent done on an amazingly precise and accurate scale. The years that he spends battling the elements and the lack of help are well told. His successor, George Everest is an extremely difficult man to work for but he does yields some vast improvements to the surveying process.
Very little time is spent on Mount Everest, other than to explain the origin of the name and some of the debate about calculating the height of the mountain range. Overall, however, this book was an excellent story on the quest to survey with almost fanatical precision a large piece of the earth and the men, many of whom died in the process, whod dedicated their lives and careers to thsi endeavor.
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