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Empire on high: mountains, measurement and the ‘world altitude record’ in the nineteenth century

Recorded on 25 January 2022

Speaker: Lachlan Fleetwood (University College Dublin)

This paper examines the sometimes convoluted and often bombastic history of the ‘world altitude record’ (i.e. the highest point on the surface of the earth reached by humans). I focus on the long nineteenth century, and the various claims to new heights before Everest became accessible and the main prize from the 1910s (ultimately rendering the altitude record redundant when it was finally summited in 1953). During this earlier period, there were more than a dozen claimants, including Alexander von Humboldt with his famous climb on Chimborazo in 1802, an unnamed assistant to the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India in the early 1860s, and the prolific Swiss guide Mattias Zurbriggen who may have briefly shifted the record from the Himalaya back to the Andes in 1897. Many of these supposed record ascents were nevertheless later found to never have been the case (such as Humboldt’s with the discovery of the frozen bodies of Inca sacrifices at a higher altitude on the summit of Llullaillaco) or doubted (as in William Woodman Graham’s ascent of Kabru in 1883 where his woeful grasp of geography led to suggestions he may have climbed a different mountain altogether). Adding to these controversies, claims to the record tended to be complicated by the great difficulty of measuring altitude accurately, even into the late nineteenth century. I thus use these ‘record’ setting and seeking expeditions to reflect on the following: the technical and social challenges of scientific measurement and knowledge-making at the edges of empires; the role of global comparison in the standardisation of altitude above sea level as the category that makes mountains matter from the perspective of Western science; and the place of ‘records’ in the history of exploration and geography as a discipline.
Lachlan Fleetwood is an Irish Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow at University College Dublin, which he joined following a PhD in history at the University of Cambridge. At UCD, he is developing a new project on environmental determinism in imperial surveys of Central Asia and Mesopotamia. Parts of his research on scientific instruments, altitude physiology and mountains have previously been published in the journals History of Science, Itinerario and Notes and Records. His first book, Science on the Roof of the World: Empire and the Remaking of the Himalaya, will be published by Cambridge University Press in 2022.

IHR Seminar SeriesLondon Group of Historical Geographers