History

My favourite… committee name

Scottish landscape

Image by David Mark from Pixabay.

It is “The Committee for Measuring the Attraction of Hills”, an English 18th-century creation, formed at the instigation of then Astronomer Royal Nevil Maskelyne.

It was not that he and colleagues had a particular love for hills, if anything the opposite – for the gravitational pull of hills affected sensitive surveying instruments of the time. Without knowledge of the Earth’s composition (some at the time believed it was hollow), these effects could not be calculated theoretically. So instead, the committee set out to measure the actual effects and work backwards from there not only to come up with appropriate adjustments for instruments but also therefore to divine more about the composition of the Earth itself.

Maskelyne himself was awarded the Royal Society’s highest honour for his role in leading the research but the committee’s name should also live on in the heart of every bureaucrat.

(Committee discovered via Rachel Hewitt’s Map of a Nation. For an example of why this problem was so important to crack, take a look at the drawing of the Mason-Dixon line, which was distorted by such gravity variations.)

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