Winston Churchill explains why it’s impossible to map Afghanistan

Bruno Maddox has a great piece in Discover Magazine this month (though it’s not online) recounting the numerous efforts to put the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan down on a map. In 1802, William Lambton, a Brit, undertook the task of mapping the subcontinent of India. He traversed the entire expanse laying out iron rods, chains ...

605527_xmjqXf6dVvKa5.jpg
605527_xmjqXf6dVvKa5.jpg

Bruno Maddox has a great piece in Discover Magazine this month (though it's not online) recounting the numerous efforts to put the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan down on a map. In 1802, William Lambton, a Brit, undertook the task of mapping the subcontinent of India. He traversed the entire expanse laying out iron rods, chains and plumb bobs to triangulate each survey point. It took him 50 years to cut a single broad swath across the country.

Sadly, the same system wouldn’t fly in Afghanistan because gravitational forces created by the mountains interfered with the instruments. Others attempted to measure the altitude of Afghanistan’s craggy peaks using barometers, or by measuring the temperature at which a kettle would boil, but none of those methods met high enough standards of scientific accuracy.

Maddox notes that in 1897 Churchill took a trip near the Khyber Pass. Churchill observed:

Bruno Maddox has a great piece in Discover Magazine this month (though it’s not online) recounting the numerous efforts to put the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan down on a map. In 1802, William Lambton, a Brit, undertook the task of mapping the subcontinent of India. He traversed the entire expanse laying out iron rods, chains and plumb bobs to triangulate each survey point. It took him 50 years to cut a single broad swath across the country.

Sadly, the same system wouldn’t fly in Afghanistan because gravitational forces created by the mountains interfered with the instruments. Others attempted to measure the altitude of Afghanistan’s craggy peaks using barometers, or by measuring the temperature at which a kettle would boil, but none of those methods met high enough standards of scientific accuracy.

Maddox notes that in 1897 Churchill took a trip near the Khyber Pass. Churchill observed:

Far below us was a valley, into which perhaps no white man had looked since Alexander [the Great] crossed the mountains.

Our guide meanwhile squatted on the ground and pronounced the names of all the villages, as each one was pointed at. To make sure there was no mistake, the series of questions was repeated. This time he gave to each an entirely different name with an appearance of great confidence and pride.”

One other fun fact from the column: George Everest, another surveyor (for whom the mountain is named), never pronounced his name as we do today. Instead he split the two syllables into “Eve-rest.”

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