Sir George Everest (17901866), by Maull & Fox
Everest, Sir George (17901866), geodesist and military engineer, was born in Greenwich on 4 July 1790, the third of six children and the eldest son of (William) Tristram Everest (17471825), a lawyer at Greenwich, and his wife, Lucetta Mary Smith (d. 1809). He was educated at the Royal Military College, Marlow, and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich (1805), before joining the East India Company as a cadet in 1806. That year he sailed for India as second lieutenant in the Bengal artillery. After seven years' service, about which little is known, he was sent to Java, where from 1814 to 1816 he surveyed the island at the request of the lieutenant-governor, Stamford Raffles. He was chosen for this task because of his proficiency in mathematics and astronomy. He then returned to Bengal and spent the next two years improving the navigation of the rivers connecting the Ganges and the Hooghly. The success of these engineering works brought him to the notice of William Lambton, superintendent of the great trigonometrical survey of India, and as a result Everest was appointed chief assistant on the survey in 1817. He delayed joining it in order to survey a line for a visual telegraph (for the transmission of messages by semaphore) from Calcutta to Benares, a distance of 400 miles. In 1818 he joined Lambton at Hyderabad and began surveying.
There were three main surveying projects current in India at the time: the revenue survey, the topographical survey, and the trigonometrical survey. Lambton and Everest were associated with the last of these projects, which was of international geodetic importance because of its part in determining the figure of the earth. Lambton had begun the work of measuring a meridian arc north from Cape Cormorin, and Everest's task was to complete the arc. From the start he was hampered by inadequate staff and instruments, but was insistent that work be carried out to the greatest degree of precision possible. This meant he had to do much of the fieldwork himself, particularly in its early stages, and this in turn worsened his already poor health. In 1820, while he was surveying in a swampy and malarial part of the nizam of Hyderabad's territory, he contracted malaria for the second time and he was ordered to the Cape of Good Hope to recuperate. He used his time to investigate a meridian arc measured in southern Africa in the mid-eighteenth century. In 1821 he returned to India and continued work. On the death of Lambton in 1823 Everest was appointed superintendent of the survey and began to extend his predecessor's work northwards from the valley of Berar, insisting on working in the field even though half paralysed from the effects of fever and rheumatism. In November 1824 he measured a base-line in the Sironj valley, and in 1825 had carried the observations on to Bhaorasa when his health gave way and he returned to England, bringing work on the arc to a halt.
Although initially too ill to work, Everest used his time in England to good effect. He had three main aims: the first was to win the unequivocal support of the East India Company for the completion of the measurement of the arc, the second was to investigate the methods and instruments in use by the Ordnance Survey, and the third was to secure lasting improvements in the instruments available in India. He achieved the first at least in part by winning interest in scientific circles for the continuation of the arc, in which connection he was elected fellow of the Royal Society on 8 March 1827. By 1830 the company had abandoned earlier plans to use astronomical methods to survey the northern plains, and Everest was charged with extending the work by trigonometrical means whatever the cost. Everest achieved his second aim particularly through contact with Thomas Colby of the Ordnance Survey in Ireland; he returned to India with compensation bars modelled on Colby's. He achieved his third aim by persuading the East India Company to engage Henry Barrow to travel to India to make and maintain mathematical instruments for the survey. While in England he published An Account of the Measurement of the Arc of the Meridian (1830).
Everest went back to India in June 1830 to become, in addition to superintendent of the trigonometric survey, surveyor-general of India. His administrative duties were thus considerably increased, and this delayed his return to scientific work on the great arc until 1832. However, despite further bouts of sickness, he was able to see the work through to completion in 1841 under Andrew Scott Waugh, by which time an arc of meridian more than 21° in length had been measured from Cape Comorin to the northern border of British India. He worked tirelessly, in the field and at survey headquarters, to ensure the steady progress and high scientific standard of the survey work. These years were marred by a quarrel between Everest and Thomas Jervis whom, without consulting Everest, the East India Company had provisionally appointed as his successor. In that capacity, Jervis had lectured to the Royal Society in London on the inadequacies of the present Indian survey and had gathered support among fellows for improvements. Everest, always rather hot-tempered and devoted to the survey, reacted furiously to this criticism in effect of himself and Lambton, publishing A Series of Letters Addressed to the Duke of Sussex as President of the Royal Society (1839). The letters are stinging attacks on the fellows of the Royal Society for meddling in matters of which they know little. In the end the affair came to nothing: the Royal Society retreated into inaction and Jervis resigned in 1841 and thus never succeeded Everest. In November 1842, the arc complete, Everest resigned, successfully recommending Waugh as his successor. He left the administration in good order, having in Thomas Renny-Tailour and Waugh officers in whom he had great trust and having promoted to positions of considerable importance local staff such as the computer Radhanath Sickdhar and the instrument maker Saiyid Mir Mohsin Hussain.
The price of Everest's trigonometrical success, however, was the relative neglect of topographical survey. This latter was pursued ad hoc and for its neglect Everest was criticized at the time by Henry Prinsep, member of the Council of India, and later by some historians. Edney (289) defends Everest, pointing out that the great trigonometrical survey was seen as the fundamental geographical project and the other surveys as secondary in the sense that their results could be contained within the archive structure of the great trigonometrical survey.
On 16 December 1843 Everest retired and returned to England. There he married, on 17 November 1846, Emma (b. 1822/3), the eldest daughter of Thomas Wing, a lawyer of Gray's Inn and Hampstead; they had four daughters and two sons. Everest wrote An Account of the Measurement of Two Sections of the Meridional Arc of India (2 vols., 1847), for which he received the medal of the Royal Astronomical Society. He was elected an honorary member of the Asiatic Society of Bengal and fellow of the Royal Asiatic and Royal Geographical societies. He was as active as his health allowed in his masonic lodge and at the Athenaeum. He reached the rank of colonel with effect from 1854, was named CB on 26 February 1861 (having solicited this honour in memoranda to the directors of the East India Company as early as 1838), and knighted on 13 March 1861. He served on the council of the Royal Society from 1863 to 1865, was a member of the council and a vice-president of the Royal Geographical Society, and was a manager of the Royal Institution from 1859 to his death. He died at his home, 10 Westbourne Street, Hyde Park Gardens, London, on 1 December 1866, survived by his wife and children, and was buried on 8 December in St Andrew's churchyard, Hove.
Everest is chiefly remembered not for his geodetic work, but because his name was given in 1856 by his successor in India, Andrew Waugh, to Peak XV in the Himalayas. Mount Everest (originally Mont Everest), at 29,028 feet, is the highest summit in the world. It was exceptional to name a feature after a European, since the surveyors were normally scrupulous in using local names. In this instance, however, no local name could be agreed on. Everest's scientific achievements have inevitably lasted less well. His great vision was to calculate the figure of the earth, comparing his great arc with arcs in higher latitude, particularly that from Spain to Scotland, and F. G. W. Struve's western Russian arc, as well as the short arc in Peru. Astronomical measurements along the Indian great arc were subsequently found to be too disturbed by the attraction of the Himalayas, and to be too inaccurate in its southernmost part (that is, the part for which Lambton was responsible) to make it reliable. Everest's figure was soon superseded and, although he had made considerable procedural and technical improvements in surveying, he left no major scientific discovery or invention as his legacy. By the later twentieth century satellite technology had completely changed the method of calculating the figure of the earth. Everest's importance was as a man of vision who with immense determination carried out his plan to the limits of precision then possible, without regard to his own comfort or that of those around him, and whose achievement was of great importance to contemporary geodesy and to the accurate surveying of India.
R. H. Phillimore, ed., Historical records of the survey of India, 4 (1958) · Colonel Sir George Everest, Proceedings of the Bicentenary Conference of the Royal Geographical Society, 8th November 1990 [London 1990] (1990), 3450 · J. Insley, Making mountains out of molehills? George Everest and Henry Barrow, 18309, Indian Journal of History of Science, 30 (1995), 4755 · M. H. Edney, Mapping an empire: the geographical construction of British India, 17651843 (1997) · J. R. Smith, Everest: the man and the mountain (1999) · C. R. Markham, A memoir on the Indian surveys (1871)
BL OIOC, MSS
National Archives of India, New Delhi, corresp. and papers relating to survey of India
Royal Artillery Institution, Woolwich, London, papers
RS, papers relating to survey of India | BL, letters to Charles Babbage, Add. MSS 3718337200, passim
RGS, letters to Royal Geographical Society
TNA: PRO, corresp. with Lord Ellenborough, 30/12
attrib. W. Tayler, pencil drawing, 1843, NPG · Burrard, oils (after a photograph), Royal Artillery Museum, Woolwich, London · Elliott & Fry, photograph, NPG · Maull & Fox, photograph, NPG [see illus.] · Russell & Sons, photograph, NPG
Wealth at death
under £70,000: probate, 14 Jan 1867, CGPLA Eng. & Wales