The Lambton surprise

WHEN JOHN Keay, the author of that bestseller The Great Arc - "the dramatic tale of how India was mapped and Everest was named" - was in Madras recently for the William Lambton Commemoration marking the beginnings of the Great Trigonometrical Survey here 200 years ago, he was in for a surprise. Presenting him the traditional mementos after one of his talks were two teenagers, James and Justine de Penning - whose ancestry, an equally surprised audience were told, goes back to the beginnings of the Great Arc.

Lambton's senior local assistant from the beginning of the survey was a Joshua de Penning, of Flemish origin. de Penning had been brought up in what is now St. George's School and Orphanage on Poonamallee High Road. Very likely, like so many talented students from what was then the Madras Male Orphans' Asylum, he went on to the Madras Survey School (1794), the oldest institution for technical education outside Europe, which grew into Guindy Engineering College and today's Anna University. Trained by Lambton, de Penning did the necessary computations, then was entrusted with the Great Theodolite and much triangulation work as the survey pushed through the Nizam's Hyderabad.

Eventually, when Lambton died near Nagpur and that irascible martinet George Everest took over, de Penning resigned and the Madras surveyors threatened to follow his lead. Matters were sorted out in time and de Penning went to Calcutta to head the drawing and computation office where number crunchers like Radhanath Sikdar, whom de Penning had recruited, made the calculations necessary to make the survey meaningful.

Travelling with Joshua de Penning as the survey moved west to Bangalore and then north to Hyderabad was his wife, Marie, from Madras, and their children. There were to be 14 little de Pennings, the eldest of whom, Joe, had joined Lambton's survey team by the time they reached Hyderabad in 1818. One of the de Penning boys was to join the Railways and, I understand, when he found that he couldn't get a patent for one of his inventions, quit the railways, studied law and set up the first patent attorney's office in India in Calcutta. He was later to be joined by his son Robert in what became de Penning & de Penning. Robert de Penning later decided to run de Penning & de Penning from his grandfather's town and so moved to Madras.

When I first read The Great Arc, I telephoned Robert about the de Penning connection and he promised to tell me the whole story when we next met. But he died shortly after that, still in his prime. It was his son and daughter who provided John Keay that surprise in Madras.


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