Weighing the World: The Quest to Measure the Earth

Weighing the World: The Quest to Measure the Earth

Weighing the World: The Quest to Measure the Earth

Weighing the World: The Quest to Measure the Earth


Weighing the World is a revealing behind-the-scenes look at the scientific events leading to modern map making, written by one of the world's master surveyors. Edwin Danson, using a similar approach to his earlier best seller, "Drawing the Line: How Mason and Dixon Surveyed the Most Important Border in America" (Wiley, 2000) takes us on a journey telling the story of this experiment that has not been written about in over two hundred years. National jealousies, commercial and political rivalry were the underlying causes for many of the eighteenth century's wars but war also provided the stimulus for much commercial effort and scientific innovation. Armies equipped with the latest weaponry marched about the countryside, led by generals with only the vaguest of maps at their disposal. At the start of the century there were no maps, anywhere in the world. While there were plenty of atlases and sketch maps of countries, regions and districts, with few exceptions they were imperfect renditions in nature. No one knew, with any certainty the shape of the earth or what lay beneath its surface. Was it hollow or was it solid? Were the Andes the highest mountain on the Earth or was it the peak of Tenerife? Was the Earth a perfect sphere or was it slightly squashed as Sir Isaac Newton prophesized? Just how did you accurately measure the planet? The answers to these and other questions about the nature of the Earth, answers we now take for granted, were complete mysteries. Danson presents the stories of the scientists and scholars that had to scale the Andes, cut through tropical forests and how they handled the hardships they faced in the attempt to revolutionize our understanding of the planet.


It was an age of reason; it was an age of enlightenment. It was an age of philosophical and scientific revolution, a fleeting period in history sandwiched between two momentous political revolutions: the bloodless English revolution of 1688 and the very bloody French Revolution of 1789.

The golden age began with the sowing of the mechanical seeds that grew to become the Industrial Revolution. the opening decade of the eighteenth century saw the world's first wheezing steam plant, and by 1712 Thomas Newcomen's steam-powered pumping engine was sucking prodigious amounts of water from a coal mine in Derbyshire. When the century began, manufacturing throughout the Western world was a cottage industry; 80 years later Sir Richard Arkwright had set in motion the “factory revolution” and was employing over 5,000 workers in his dark, but not yet “satanic,” textile mills.

It was the age of Swift and Johnson, of political radicals such as Wilkes, and of philosophers like Rousseau and Voltaire. Mozart was born and died in this century, the genius of Beethoven flourished, and Handel wrote music sublime to entertain kings. and there were the poets, such as Pope, Goldsmith, and Cowper, who captured the essence of change that was sweeping across Europe. “Whereas in France the hurricane of revolution swept the country,” reflected Engels in his socialist review of the eighteenth century, “there passed through England a quieter, but no less powerful upheaval. Steam and the new mechanical tools changed mill-working into modern heavy industry, thereby revolutionising the whole basis of middle class society. the sleepy evolution of the period of manufacture was turned into a veritable storm … of production.”

It was a turbulent age, a time of nearly continuous conflict by armies and navies increasingly furnished with scientific wonders to improve the means of waging war in ever more terrible, more destructive, and more devastating ways. the first decade of the century saw the union of Scotland with England and the beginnings of worldwide political unrest. Across the Atlantic Ocean, Britain's . . .

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