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The Great Arc: The Dramatic Tale of How India Was Mapped and Everest Was Named
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The Great Arc: The Dramatic Tale of How India Was Mapped and Everest Was Named

3.86  ·  Rating Details ·  286 Ratings  ·  39 Reviews
The Great Indian Arc of the Meridian, begun in 1800, was the longest maesurement of the earth's surface ever to have been attempted. Its 1,600 miles of inch-perfect survey took nearly fifty years. Hailed as "one of the most stupendous works in the history of science," it was also one of the most perilous. Snowy mountains and tropical jungles, floods and fevers, tigers and ...more
Paperback, 224 pages
Published August 1st 2001 by Harper Perennial (first published 2000)
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Lance Greenfield
Dec 08, 2009 Lance Greenfield rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
As a surveyor, I was fascinated by the exploits of my forebears. It is an amazing account, and I saw many reflections of some of my own experiences. Of course, the equipment that I had access to was much more technologically based, but the principles were much the same. Also, there were a surprising number of things that have not changed over the decades.

I was in awe of these great men, and the lengths that they went to so that they could provide the baseline from which they could measure, and m
Jun 19, 2017 Kadri rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Just fabulous as far as a book on triangulation can be. It was interesting for me to read about the Great Indian Arc of Meridian and compare it in my mind to the Struve-Tenner Geodetic Arc (the Great Russian Arc) measured at the same time in Eastern Europe. The people who were involved in the triangulation were quite something, and obviously if you'd pair geodesy with tigers, malaria, and the highest mountains in the world, you're bound to get something interesting.
Jul 04, 2013 Maitrey rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
The Great Arc is a wonderful little chronicle of the "Great Trigonometrical Survey" carried out in India roughly between 1800-1860 CE. Various teams surveyed India right from its southern tip, to the Himalayas.

What brings the book alive is John Keay's writing. Packed with meticulously researched details both in India and in England, Keay enriches it further with some things gained from his own recent traversing of the Great Arc.

The book is packed with memorable characters such as William Lambton
The Great Arc is an account of the Trigonometric Survey of India, a mammoth exercise to survey and map the Indian sub-continent from Kanyakumari (then Cape Comorin) to Kashmir and from the Indus delta to Burma, an exercise that commenced in 1802 and was completed only in 1870.
The book traces the history of the Trigonometric Survey from its conceptualisation and commencement in 1802 by its first superintendent William Lambton until the mid 1830's under his successor George Everest. In this time t
May 16, 2016 Maurya rated it it was ok
A good book that loses steam in its second half. It starts off strong - describing the men, instruments of the great trigonometric survey and the perils facing them. Then it just settles into a rhythm of Everest bashing, malaria, scouting for high ground, Everest bashing, malaria...
Notably the book has exactly three lines on Radhanath Sikdar. The author believes that Sikdar's contribution to the survey has been overstated but how about introducing him first and then presenting some arguments abo
Jun 12, 2011 Manish rated it liked it
The story of how India was mapped, through a series of triangles, by using the basic fundamentals of trigonometry, under the leadership of William Lambton and his successor after whom the tallest peak in the world was named - George Everest. Somehow, my respect for topo sheets just went up a few notches after reading this book!
Jun 11, 2017 Kevin rated it liked it
Great book about geographical expeditions in India. Fascinating story, just couldn't get into it consistently for whatever reason. Very informative and insightful and ties in stories about the mapping expeditions themselves with bits and pieces about the imperial influence of the British on India. Definitely interested in checking out Keay's other books.
At the edge of the Welsh town of Crickhowell in the Black Mountains of Wales lies the Georgian manor house of Gwernvale, now a hotel. It was built by Greenwich solicitor William Tristram Everest, and local lore claims that his eldest son George was born here: his baptismal certificate attests that he was born on the 4th July 1790, but there’s no supporting evidence as to where. As it was not till several months later that he was baptised at St Alphage church, Greenwich — on 27th January 1791 — t ...more
Srinath Sridhar
Oct 09, 2011 Srinath Sridhar rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
NOTE: This is a review of the book that I wrote 3 years ago on my blog. It has been edited for grammar and minor factual errors.


I read very few books these days, but I am glad that The Great Arc was one among the few. It is [a] wonderful book written by John Keay, an Englishman, about one of the greatest scientific feats of the 19th century. Before you start thinking about mile-long bridges or sky-high buildings, hey... There are things in
Shashishekhar Kashyap
Apr 15, 2016 Shashishekhar Kashyap rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Shashishekhar by: Ravi Shekhar
Shelves: history
In history, regimes can't be classified in binary. Their activities, actions and achievements have to be summed contextually. Even then, without accounting for multiple perspectives, judging a regime as good or bad should not ensue.

The British rule of India is one such regime which evoke extreme opinions. The Brits, from most accounts, did run their government in a typically high handed manner.

However, one cannot but admire their steadfastness and rigor in the pursuit of scientific exploration.
Pramod Pant
Jan 30, 2013 Pramod Pant rated it it was ok
John Keay is an engaging writer of uncomplicated books. I have relished reading his works. His India Discovered and History of China were keenly informative, the later even carrying a heightened colour and relatively racy narration. My hunch is that the presence of his wife Julia in that book creates that effect. And the frequent literary flourishes, which were absent in the more sedate, though still romantic, 'India Discovered' could also be happily dedicated to Julia.

'The Great Arc' too, appar
Dec 23, 2011 Ensiform rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, india
A thin but inspiring history: how William Lambton, George Everest (pronounced EVE-rest), and other hardy and dedicated souls mapped a great deal of India. The Arc was a series of triangles plotted through vertical and horizontal triangulation, sometimes confirmed by fixing one’s place by observation of the stars. This mapping required braving malaria- and dysentery-infested forests and plains; crunching the numbers in impossibly complex equations; lugging a vast instrument called
The Great Theodo
Rajiv Chopra
Aug 22, 2013 Rajiv Chopra rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Anyone interested in Indian history
Recommended to Rajiv by: No one
Shelves: indian-history
This is one more of John Keay's little gems, and like his other book "Into India", this does the name of specific Britons a great favour.

I did know that Mount Everest was named after George Everest, but I did not know the story of George Everest and Lambdon. When I read the book, I doffed my imaginary hat at the two gentlemen several times. What they achieved, is something outstanding. Given the nature of the instruments that they had, and the difficulties of traveling in India, only passion an
Ajitabh Pandey

This book covers the story of trigonometrical survey carried out in India during the most part of 19th Century. The project was started by a British surveyor William Lambton and after his death the chief surveyor position was taken over by George Everest. However, surprisingly, people do not remember Lambton at all and Everest was only remembered because Mount Everest was na
Frederick Bingham
This is the mildly interesting tale of the British survey of India. Not knowing anything of the history of India or the British rule there I learned some of what happened, though that seemed mainly peripheral. In order to rule India, they needed accurate maps, and the key to accurate maps was good surveys. The surveys were led by William Lambton and George Everest (of the namesake mountain). The surveys were very difficult. They required building countless towers from which the surveyors could s ...more
Aug 31, 2015 Cade rated it really liked it
This book is a quick and easy read. It tells two mostly separate tales in parallel: the story of the Great Trigonometric Survey of India and the efforts to measure the heights of the highest Himalayan peaks. The emphasis is on the Trigonometric Survey. The book does describe some of the process of the surveying like how they had to clear trees and climb temples and light flares to take measurements, and this, along with some numbers to show the extravagant accuracy sought (and achieved), was the ...more
Tim Poston
Jan 13, 2014 Tim Poston rated it it was amazing
So much is fine about this book (like anything Keay writes), it would take longer to describe well than to read it. But I want to remark on a fragment about one minor character in the story: "Colonel Colin Mackenzie ... was another noted mathematician, who had originally forsaken his home in the Hebridean Isle of Lewis to visit India in order to study the Hindu system of logarithms."
As a mathematician myself, I wanted to know a bit more, and found myself wishing the book was an e-text, so I coul
The Great Arc is a fascinating account of how an arc of longitude was measured starting from Cape Comorin at the southern tip of the Indian subcontinent northwards to Hyderabad, and continuing to Dehra Dun in the Himalayas; how this helped to deduce what sort of spheroid the Earth is, and how one of the surveyors who took part in this Great Trigonometrical Survey got to place his name just a little nearer to the stars than that of any other mapmaker. I admire the persistence of these men, their ...more
JZ Temple
Aug 28, 2007 JZ Temple rated it liked it
Shelves: history
The use of the word "Dramatic" on the cover is rather misleading. I would think that "Somewhat Interesting" and perhaps "Not Well Known" would be more accurate, but dramatic it isn't. The author never does find a solid theme for the book. It drifts between the surveying of India, a biography of Everest (pronounced Eve-rest, I'm sure you wanted to know) and a history of his predecessors and those who came after. It does contain some interesting information on the actual surveys, which are of more ...more
Kevin Tole
Jul 26, 2011 Kevin Tole rated it it was amazing
A pretty good book and an excellent read how an amazingly accurate survey was made through the Indian sub-conttinent at the start of the 19th century. Everest comes out as a bit of a tosser only relenting in his later years. The struggles to achieve accuracies rarely seen before are well documented. Could have only been achieved by an imperial conquering and occupying country in another people's land but it laid the foundation for the Survey of India and used unbelievable manpower and resources ...more
Jun 05, 2013 Diane rated it liked it
A little book (less than 200 pages) that was quite fun to read. It is the story of a major survey done in India in the first half of the 19th century by William Lambton and George Everest – YES the person Mount Everest was named after. I like history of technology and enjoyed the stories about the equipment, including a half-ton theodolite that was hauled by porter, elephant and boat all over India and hoisted up on top of towers. I like histories of forgotten people. I like histories that show ...more
Manjunath MC
Jan 29, 2014 Manjunath MC rated it it was amazing
It is wonderfully written book about how India was measured, mapped, how Mountain Everest was identified, measured and even named. Book even covers few interesting stories which had happened during the Great arc measurement. A massive work which took more than half a century has been completely forgotten.

Keay concludes book with this line, that pretty much sums it up
" but where history is oblivious, geography is tenacious!"
May 20, 2013 Alison added it
how India was mapped and how Everest was named, by triangulation and painstakingly careful methods which involved hoisting a huge theodolyte up towers to take sightings of the next hill. remarkable story though rather rambling account of 1820s India at start of the Raj. Actually helped to establish British rule as the Brits did the mapping
Feb 05, 2008 Ross rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, india
Empire made people do some crazy shit. This book tells the history of the Great Trigonometrical Survey, Britan's 40+ year effort to survey the Indian sub-continent in the early 1800's. As the book illustrates, it was one of the most ambitious engineering projects ever (in many ways akin to a military campaign), and many died in the process. An unexpectedly interesting read.
Harini Srinivasan
Very exciting! It provides the fascinating historical background to all those exciting stories about 'The Great Game' of the British Raj (Kim, The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes). I specially loved the story of how the theodolite came to India and the gallantry of the French pirates who intercepted it! If you love maps and adventure, this is for you.
Jun 29, 2015 Abhiram rated it really liked it
the awe inspiring tale of how India was mapped and how Mt Everest was discovered and named. braving malaria and tiger infested jungles, coping with hostile locals & a doubting government and often at the cost of their own lives, a party of men ventured out to measure a totally new land, for the sake of science, that too in the early 1800s. truly stunning achievement.
Jeff Elliott
May 14, 2013 Jeff Elliott rated it it was ok
Shelves: history
Pretty technical for an average reader and mathematician. If you are interested in the technical side of mapping a country like India you may enjoy this. I was looking for the adventure/story of the accomplishment.
Soo Lian
Oct 28, 2013 Soo Lian rated it it was amazing
Totally fascinating!
Jaseena AL
Jun 23, 2015 Jaseena AL rated it really liked it
Rating : 4 stars
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John Keay (born 1941) is an English journalist and author specialising in writing popular histories about India and the Far East, often with a particular focus on their colonisation and exploration by Europeans.

John Keay is the author of about 20 books, all factual, mostly historical, and largely to do with Asia, exploration or Scotland. His first book stayed in print for thirty years; many others
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