S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Everest, Colonel George (geodetic surveying)

Born: 4 July 1790, Crickhowell, Wales, United Kingdom.
Died: 1 December 1866, London, United Kingdom.

George Everest, geodesist and military engineer, was educated at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich, London. He did so well in his examinations that he was declared fit for a commission before attaining the required age. In 1806 he was employed by the English East India Company and was sent to India as a second lieutenant in the Bengal Artillery. During 1814-1816 he took part in the reconnaissance of Java and after his return to India was employed in various engineering works. In 1818 he was promoted to captain and appointed chief assistant on the trigonometric survey of India. During 1820 he returned to England suffering from malaria. On his way back to India that same year he arrived at the Cape of Good Hope on 25 November 1820 and remained to spend some of his sick-leave there. He interested himself in the arc of meridian measured by N.L. De la Caille* in 1752, the results of which could not be reconciled with similar measurements in other countries. During the next eight months he visited the sites at the end-points of the arc and suggested that De la Caille's anomalous results could be explained in principle by errors of latitude resulting from the gravitational attraction of Table Mountain in the south and the Piketberg in the north. In his paper "On the triangulation of the Cape of Good Hope", published in the Memoirs of the Astronomical Society of London (1822), he proposed that new observations be made at the same spots, and that the arc be extended northwards to circumvent the problem. While still at the Cape he met the astronomer Reverend Fearon Fallows* shortly after the latter's arrival on 12 August 1821.

Everest's proposals were eventually put into effect by T. Maclear* during 1838-1847. The results showed that a gravity disturbance at the northern end of the arc caused an error of more than eight seconds of arc in the measurement of latitude and accounted for the greater part of the apparent error in De la Caille's results.

In 1823 Everest succeeded Colonel Lambton as superintendent of the trigonometrical survey of India. Two years later he again returned to England in failing health. He went back to India in 1830 to continue as head of the survey, while at the same time serving as surveyor-general of that country during 1830 to 1843. He was promoted to major in 1832, to lieutenant-colonel in 1838, and to colonel in 1854. Under his supervision an arc of meridian more than 11 degrees in extent was surveyed, extending an arc some 10 degrees in extent measured earlier by Lambton. The combined arc of over 21 degrees represented a monumental achievement and was important in deriving the precise shape of the earth. Everest published An account of the measurement of the arc of the meridian between the parallels of 18 degrees 3 minutes and 24 degrees 7 minutes, being a continuation of the grand meridional arc of India, as detailed by Lieut.-Col. Lambton... (London, 1830, 336p). This was followed in 1847 by An account of the measurement of two sections of the Meridional Arc of India... (London, 1847, 439p). Most of the dozen or so of scientific papers that he published dealt with the instruments, methods, and progress of the trigonometrical survey of India during 1833-1844.

Everest retired to England in 1843 and was knighted in 1861. He was a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and became vice-president of the society in 1862. In 1827 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London and served on its council from 1863 to 1865. The highest peak in the Himalayas (and in the world) was named in his honour.

List of sources:
Encyclopaedia Britannica, 9th edition, 1875-1888.

National Union Catalogue, pre-1956 imprints. London: Mansell, 1968-1980.

Oxford dictionary of national biography. Oxford University Press, 2004.

Royal Society of London. Catalogue of scientific papers [1800-1900]. London: Royal Society, 1867-1925.

Simpson, K. A history of the South African trigonometrical system. South African Journal of Surveying and Mapping, 1989, Vol. 20(3), pp. 109-119.

Warner, B. Charles Piazzi Smyth, astronomer artist: His Cape years, 1835-1845. Cape Town: Balkema, 1983.

Warner, B. Royal Observatory, Cape of Good Hope, 1820-1831. Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1995.

Compiled by: C. Plug