The Mystery Man Who Measured Mount Everest
Upon arriving at a definitive calculation, Radhanath Sikdar burst into Andrew Scott Waugh's office and exclaimed, ‘Sir, I have discovered the highest mountain in the world!’
That’s how the story goes, though it has been questioned. What we can be sure of is that there was an unsung Mr. Sikdar, who helped discover the world’s highest mountain.
Andrew Scott Waugh had succeeded George Everest as Surveyor-General in 1843, and was using Everest’s results from the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India, as the base for a survey of the Himalayas. In the effort, which took months on end, Waugh was assisted by a team of surveyors, who analyzed the terrain and 'human' computers who would calculate and extrapolate the trigonometry involved into a coherent finding. Radhanath Sikdar headed this team of computers.
– Radhanath Sikdar headed a team of ‘human computers,’ while surveying the Himalayas
It is while working on this project in the North East of India, under Waugh’s supervision, that British surveyors were first said to have laid eyes on the snow-capped Himalayan peaks in nearby Nepal and Tibet, from the floodplains of the Ganga in Bihar (Bhagalpur) and Uttar Pradesh (Pilibhit), as well as vantage points in Darjeeling, West Bengal.
Though the British were keenly intrigued by what they saw as the tallest mountains they had ever seen, surveying them was not on the immediate agenda, due to Nepal’s closed-door policy on outsiders at the time. As part of the Great Trigonometric Survey of India (GTSI) in 1847, Waugh had measured Kangchenjunga in Darjeeling, which was deemed the highest mountain in the world, at over 28,000 ft.
– Sikdar’s team discovered a mountain that seemed higher than Kangchenjunga, called ‘Peak XV’
With estimated distances and angular measurements, Waugh’s team of computers, led by Mr. Sikdar, computed heights for various mountain peaks in the far reaches of Nepal. In 1847, from different locations, Waugh took measurements of a mountain, which was suspected even taller than Kangchenjunga. It was simply listed in survey records as ‘Himalaya Peak XV,’ for lack of a local name.
Measuring a mountain requires accounting for terrestrial refraction, the bending of light in Earth’s atmosphere, which affects the relative measurements of objects, including height. Mathematical constants called ‘coefficients of refraction’ have to be included in height computations, to correct for this phenomenon.
– Peak XV was eventually calculated from six different places in the plains by Waugh and Sikdar
By 1856, armed with more accurate measurements including these coefficients, Peak XV was eventually calculated from six different places in the plains by Waugh’s team, each well over 100km away from the mountain itself.
The average of the height readings, measured from Jarol, Mirzapur, Janjipati, Ladania, Harpur and Minai (areas in present-day UP and Bihar), calculated by Sikdar and team, read 29,002 ft. After a rigorous study, the announcement was finally made at the Asiatic Society in Kolkata in 1856.
Peak XV, rising 29,002 ft above sea level, was indeed the highest mountain in the world.
Waugh announced the news to the world and named Peak XV in honor of his predecessor, George Everest, whom he revered. It was officially named by the Royal Geographical Society as Mount Everest in 1865, after a lot of debate. Everest himself was not known to be fascinated by the Himalayas and noted historian John Keay suggests Everest never really set eyes on the mountain that would later bear his name.
After fresh observations and computations, the Survey of India declared its height in 1954 as 8,848m (29,028 ft), based on Waugh and Sikdar’s contributions.
– George Everest never really set his sights on the Himalayas or the mountain that would be named after him
So, who was this mysterious Indian genius who had helped discover the roof of the world?
Radhanath Sikdar joined the Great Trigonometrical Survey in 1831 at a salary of thirty rupees per month and was sent to Sironj, near Dehradun, where he quickly mastered the geodetic survey techniques, helping the British measure the land of the Empire they were carving for themselves.
Sikdar was transferred to Kolkata in 1851 as the Chief Computer, where he also served as the Superintendent of the Meteorological department. While there, he introduced quite a few innovations that set standards.
– Sikdar’s genius extended to other fields than geodesy, he introduced innovations in meteorology as well
The most notable of these was the formula to convert barometric readings at different temperatures to 32 degrees Fahrenheit. At the behest of Waugh, he started measuring the snow-capped mountains near Darjeeling. This is when he chanced upon the distant, seemingly loftier mountains of Nepal.
Sikdar’s exact contribution in the measurement of Mount Everest still remains a matter of debate, but it is a matter of fact that Sikdar was the chief computer at SOI’s Kolkata office, when Mount Everest was measured.
While historian John Keay rubbishes the dramatic discovery scenes with Waugh and Sikdar, reasoning that Waugh’s office was in Dehradun while Sikdar’s was in Kolkata, he admits that:
‘it is quite probable that Sickdar’s (spelling used by the British) computations provided the first clear proof of XV’s superiority.’
In Everest: The Mountaineering History, considered an authoritative piece of literature on the mountain, Walt Unsworth offers a more favorable opinion of Sikdar’s contribution saying:
‘Since the publication of the first edition a closer study of the evidence leads me to suspect that the computation of Everest’s height might have been by Sikhdar (spelling used by Unsworth) after all.’
Jon Krakauer concurs with Unsworth, crediting Sikdar with the discovery in his best-selling book, Into Thin Air (1996).
– Sikdar quickly rose to be George Everest’s assistant on the Great Survey
All things considered, Everest saw enough ‘mathematical genius’ in Sikdar to consider him his right-hand-man, leading to Sikdar being the undisputed first native Indian association with the world's highest peak.
It being the time it was, Sikdar had to put up with a lot of discrimination owing to his ‘native’ status. In 1858, when then head of Survey of India's Kolkata office Henry Thuillier made a technical blunder in some calculations, Sikdar wrote a letter admonishing him. This was in 1858, just after the rebellion of Indian sepoys had been quashed, and what was seen as Sikdar’s insubordination, was punished.
– Sikdar had to put up with a lot of discrimination in a European hierarchy at the Survey office
Thuillier didn’t take well to this and reported the matter to the Surveyor General. Waugh took a fairer standpoint and the issue was settled after Sikdar wrote a letter to him apologizing for his language, but not for the charge against Thuillier.
Thuillier did acknowledge Sikdar when he published ‘The Manual Of Surveying For India’ in 1851 as ‘Babu Radhanath Sikdar, distinguished head of the computing department of GTSI.’ After Sikdar’s death, however, the third edition of the manual, published in 1875, dropped the acknowledgement, and with it, Sikdar’s name from the history books.
In 2011, the search for Radhanath Sikdar’s grave led researchers to Chandannagar, a former French colony, about 50km from Kolkata. Sikdar, a Bengali-Christian, had retired to Chandannagar and died there in 1870. Though a small street there is named after him, his house has since been demolished, along with any remnants of his legacy.
While Sir George Everest got his name embedded into the rock and snow of the world’s highest peak which barely piqued his interest, the man who just might have made it all possible rests in a forgotten grave.
The Chinese would reaffirm the height of Everest in 1975, with other verifications by the Americans to follow. The original 1954 Survey of India calculation of the height of Mount Everest has been considered the most credible over the years, however, and has the oldest association with the peak.
Mr. Sikdar’s association in any capacity however seems to have been sadly ignored.
Cover Image Source: Shilbhadra via Wikimedia Commons
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