“Sir, I have discovered the highest mountain in the world!”
Radhanath Sikdar, 1852.
In light of my earlier post on the first men to climb Mount Everest, it would be wrong to not gloat in the slightest about the very young, very talented Bengali mathematical genius who helped to survey Peak XV. Born in Jorasanko in poverty, merit scholarships allowed him to enrol in today’s Presidency College in Kolkata. He was a Brahmin but the influence of Derozio and the Young Bengal Movement made him a believer in the efficacy of beef, boxing and beer. He was one of the first Indians to study Newton’s Principia in Latin with the help of Professor John Tytler of the Mathematics Dept. In addition to Mathematics he was fluent in Sanskrit and English and near fluent in Latin and Greek. He was only 19 when he joined the Great Trigonometric Survey of India in 1831 as a computor for a salary of Rs. 40 a month. He was already considered a genius by this time and had invented various geometrical proofs.
The Survey began by plotting triangles across India, starting at St. Thomas Peak near Chennai with a base line of 7.5 miles. It was supposed to take five years and took 60 instead. Both simple mathematical procedures such as trigonometry and complex spherical geometry to account for the earth’s curved surface were used. One of the instruments used was a theodolite that weighed a thousand pounds. A 700 strong team of men travelled from south to north measuring various land forms. In some places they had to build temporary wood or brick towers to get a clear line of sight for the theodolite, high above the trees. Their main battles were against the heat, diseases such as malaria and tigers.
After surveyors Nicholson and Hennessy had failed at working out the height of Peak XV, Sikdar began working on the problem in Dehradun. He found that they had forgotten to consider refraction or the bending of light when it passed through hot air.
But sadly, when the height of Peak XV was announced to the world, the peak was named after George Everest, Sikdar’s first boss. The head of the GTS in 1856, Andrew Waugh decided not to use the mountain’s Tibetan name Chomolungma for fear of political trouble for the British. Everest had never had anything to do with working out the height of the mountain named after him. Sikdar had done most of the work but received none of the glory.
There is much more information about Radhanath Sikdar at the following link: