Posted on: 9 January 2013

A Bengali scaled the Everest first
By Sanjay Suri
Outlook - 2003

An Indian exhibition recounts the glorious past of British mapmaking in the subcontinent. But no one's talking about the Indian contribution.

How round is the earth? Until the 19th century, that was a serious question. For one, the earth is not a perfect sphere. And its imperfections would have a bearing on maps, and maps brought knowledge, and knowledge meant power. The British had a particular, and predictable, interest in that sort of thing. And so they decided to determine the curvature of the earth by measuring the length of India by way of a sample arc.

It became, as British historian John Keay describes in his book The Great Arc, one of the greatest scientific experiments the world has ever known—the mapping and measuring of the Indian subcontinent.

It began 200 years ago at the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India when the first measurements were begun by Col William Lambton, surveyor general of India. By the time George Everest took over the survey after Lambton's death in 1822, the calculations were four years in arrears and many of them were going nowhere. Much of that changed in the mid-1830s with the hiring of Radhanath Sikdhar, a young mathematical genius from Calcutta's Hindu College.

Keay tells a British story not widely known. But within that story sits—discreetly—an Indian story that even now barely, and only incidentally, surfaces. That this most remarkable of experiments could not have succeeded without critical scientific contributions by Indians. That, the world still does not know. Worse, India did not seem to care.

Now Indian government departments have pulled money from their budgets to show the British the story of that experiment this year in Cambridge, Manchester, Birmingham and London. The exhibition called—what else—The Great Arc tells an audacious story spread over lengths up to 2,500 km and over a span of 50 years. And without contributions by Sikdhar and a group of young, talented Indian mathematicians, the mapping and measuring of India might have not gone anywhere.

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the man and his machine.. sikdar and his ancient theodolite..

The Surveyor General of India asked Radhanath Sikdar to calculate the height of Mount Everest using station observations 108 miles from the peak. Given the distance of the sightings and atmospheric distortions, the challenges were enormous. Using pencil, paper and trigonometry, he determined the height at 29,002 feet. The latest satellite technology today measures it at 29,035 feet. But the mountain grows by one centimeter a year so in 1854, the height was 29,030 feet. Thus, Sikdar was off by only 28 feet. Quite an accomplishment.

more details in SAFARI--DEC also...