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A true master of geographical research

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With the death earlier this year of Sir Edmund Hillary, conqueror of Mount Everest, we should also remember the man in whose honour the world’s highest peak was given its name.

Colonel Sir George Everest (pronounced “eve-rest”) was a Welshman gifted in

Colonel Sir George Everest

mathematics. He took over as superintendent and completed the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India on the death of William Lambton in 1823. Lambton had been working his way from Cape Comorin, the southern tip of India, up longitude 78 degrees east.

Four elephants for the tiger-wary principals, 30 horses for the military officers, 42 camels for supplies and equipment and 700 labourers and foot porters — such was the transport for a typical foray of the survey that took place between 1806 and 1843. An irritable martinet with true scientific British grit, Everest crushed every impediment underfoot as he hauled his great theodolite northwards.

Although dogged by ill health, he was determined to finish the job. He made countless adaptations to the surveying equipment, methods and mathematics used. When no high points were available for observations he built them — masonry towers 15m high that dominated the Ganges plain. He worked during the cool and dry seasons, when malaria was least virulent but atmospheric dust made sightings difficult. To solve this problem he worked at night, fixing an observation by identifying a flare on the next tower.

Everest insisted on directing every observation and taking each theodolite measurement himself. A typical error between the observed and computed length of a baseline was four inches in 41,578 feet (nearly eight miles).

The survey ran 2,400 kilometres north. From his last vantage point, above the hill station of Dehra Dun, Everest saw a range of towering peaks — the Himalayas. Andrew Waugh, his successor as Surveyor General of India, extended Everest’s triangulation network and located the highest peak, suggesting that, “to perpetuate the memory of that illustrious master of geographical research”, the mountain should be called Everest. There is no firm evidence that Everest himself laid eyes on the mountain.

In 1827 Everest was elected a fellow of the Royal Society and in 1862 he was made vice-president of the Royal Geographical Society. A man relentless in pursuit of accuracy, he would have been dismayed to leave a name that has been mispronounced ever since.

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