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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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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 alternate Paperback edition.
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 alternate Paperback edition.
Top customer reviews
One very good point of this book is that the author traveled the path of the great arc and emphasized how this great study was followed by the public and the scientific community.
One feels the slow pace of life in 19th century India. Things could stop for years, and then pick up again as if no time had passed. This enterprise was comparable in its time to the Apollo project of the 1960's in effort and scope, but it ran for roughly 60 years!
The story culminates with the first precise measurements of the Himalaya Mountains in Nepal. It is fitting that the peak that eventually emerges as the highest of all was given Everest's name (Lambton had died long before). And once again to our amazement, the altitude was correct!
Not many historians are comfortable with science and technology. So for every book about the relentless advance of those subjects, there are probably 50 rehashing the political intrigues of Europe. But Keay writes in a fascinating way about men who spent their lives immersed in these fields, and about Lambton's and Everest's faith that the future would belong to science, engineering, and technology as they moved forward on the bedrock of mathematics.
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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