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The Great Arc: The Dramatic Tale of How India was Mapped and Everest was Named [Paperback]

John Keay
4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
Price: 10.99 & FREE Delivery in the UK. Details
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Book Description

20 Aug 2010

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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Product details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins; (Reissue) edition (20 Aug 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0006531237
  • ISBN-13: 978-0006531234
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 19.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 143,112 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

Amazon Review

The Great Arc asks you to imagine a world without maps, a world where distance, height and depth cannot be taken for granted and where any journey is largely guesswork. The Great Indian Arc of the Meridian, begun in 1800, was the longest measurement of the Earth's surface ever to have been attempted. By the time it was completed 50 years later, more than 1,600 miles of the Indian sub-continent from its southern tip to the Himalayas together with the precise curvature of the Earth, had been surveyed inch-perfectly, effectively opening up the county to the present-day network of roads, railways and telegraph systems. Today, it still remains both one of the great scientific achievements of the 19th century and a lasting testament to Britain's colonial folie de grandeur. Mapping the sub-continent was a mathematical nightmare and the computations could have filled a library. However, it was also a technical nightmare. Each reading could only be confirmed from a location whose precise co-ordinates and height above sea-level were also known, so the operation involved a snail-like zig-zag along every metre of t he country, through jungle, rivers and across mountain ranges. Death and disease stalked the operation with countless casualties lost t o malaria and wild animals, but the single-minded Brits persevered. John Keay is something of an old India hand, with four histories of the sub-continent already to his credit, but The Great Arc could just make him a household name. It has the chatty tones of other small-scale histories, such as Longitude, and a similar cast of eccentric characters--not least William Lambton and George Everest, the two commanders of the expedition. The result is an intelligent and highly readable account of a long-forgotten historical backwater that fills one with awe for both the high-minded determination and stupidity of our forebears, while leaving one profoundly grateful that no one is now expected to follow in their footsteps. --John Crace


"A triumph." -- Andrew Taylor, Literary Review

"More extraordinary than any fiction." -- Mail on Sunday

"This wonderful book - is a fitting monument not just to Everest but also to the Great Arc itself." -- William Dalrymple, Sunday Times

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
but luckily this is not entirely necessary for Mr Keay does attempt to initiate the novice with an understanding of the subject and ancillary sciences. However, through the mist of trigonometry and refraction coefficients, the author reveals a story of incredible human endeavour in measuring the spine and associated areas of India. The book paints vivid portraits of the two main architects; the modest William Lambton and the martinet George Everest. The personalities of these pioneers could not have been more different. However, both were men of integrity and both driven by a common, almost fanatical, dedication to the onerous task. A fine documentary, almost certainly the only readable account of the 'Great Trigonometrical Survey of India'.
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great tale of a great big survey. 25 April 2002
By A Customer
I've often wondered why Mount Everest was named so...what George Everest achieved in mapping a country as big as India is amazing. The challanges he faced along the way; malaria killing hundreds of men, unpredictable natives, and of course the climate, and how he overcame these problems is fascinating.
Overall the book gives a very good account of how important the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India was, and how accurate; the estimation of India's highest mountain over 150 years ago was only 100m off todays measurement by computers and satellites!
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not at all the human drama I was expecting 3 Jun 2012
By R Helen
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I love narrative non-fiction and picked this book up thinking I'd find another gem of a story about how the shape of the earth has come to be known, something along the lines of Robert Whitaker's The Mapmaker's Wife. The book advertises itself as "the dramatic tale of how India was mapped and Everest was named," but there is hardly any drama in it. The narrative barely focuses on the characters and stories of the men, Lambton and Everest, but rather goes into exhaustive detail on the day to day mapping of the Great Trigonometrical Survey. But while the book could have focused on the difficulties, tragedies, and triumphs of mapping India, the story behind the survey; it instead reads page after page of endless accounts of setting up the instruments, problems with the instruments, and attempts to solve the problems. I found that without at least a basic background in trigonometry and geography, it was difficult to understand many of the chapters. However, what narrative bits the author did include were quite interesting and would have made a fascinating book had they been developed.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A tall tale 16 Nov 2006
I've given this five stars, as I did not have a clue about the issues involved and the people concerned that this book concerns, before I picked it up.

The best thing about it is it brings back two people and their associates, who had attained oblivion, to a sort of immortality.

Lucidly written and easy to get through, the book comes from a specialist on India with some fine books to his credit including a major history of the sub-continent.

I think this book makes a fine gift, and I've already started giving away copies.

Rarely are the hidden chapters of history which would ordinarily be considered too dry to even bother with returned to consciousness. The adventure, effort and facts about Indian Geography including the Himalaya and the lives of expatriate Englishpeople, stiching up an Empire - it makes absorbing reading.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Trigonometry is a boring topic that we learn in school. The application in map-making is quite difficult, but also exciting, demanding and rewarding. Measuring angles accurately, required a theodolite weighing a ton. One needs a basic measure of length. But a metal chain gets worn out. Metal bars expand in warm temperature. How does one measure height in rough terrain, in an era when anaeroid barometers did not yet exist, and mecury filled tubes were too fragile to transport? The boiling point of water changes with altitude, so one only needs a thermometer for assessing heights!
Everest, one of the leaders of this expedition, saw his name given to the highest mountain in the world, but never came close to this mountain. India was mapped very precisely around 1800 by courageous and persistent men, fighting rough terrain, tigers, jungle, and wheather. It took many years and many lives.
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4.0 out of 5 stars An Imperial obsession 30 Jan 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
John Keay's exhaustive research allows a vivid picture of the spirit of scientific enquiry and imperial drive leading to the massive and painstaking exercise of mapping the spine of India in the early 19th Century. In a very readable account he gives an idea of the physical and technical challenges of the undertaking, and the remarkable characters who undertook the task.

In particular he gives a very vivid and believable portrayal of the man most associated with the task, George Everest. He appears an irascible, arrogant and driven man who overrides ill health, native sensibilities and the difficulties of terrain and climate to finish the task, and ultimately, faut de mieux, to have his name attached to the world's highest mountain.

A pleasure to read, and again a reminder of how recently the physical world was unmapped, and health and safety concerns unheard of.
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5.0 out of 5 stars The Great Arc. Land measurement in India 1 Oct 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
A fascinating book on how to measure huge areas very accurately allowing for expansion of the measuring "chain", the curvature of the earth and atmospheric deflection.
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