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J.C. Bose in a historical perspective (2005)

Paper read at the workshop on “J.C. Bose and Today”at  the 28th General Assembly of International Union of Radio Science, New Delhi,23 October 2005


The pioneering scientist who would not patent:

J.C. Bose in a historical perspective


Rajesh Kochhar

NISTADS: National Institute of Science Technology and Development Studies,

K.S. Krishnan Marg, Pusa Gate, New Delhi 110012         


In the 1950s as school students we were often told a story about Sir J.C. Bose  by our teachers and elders.  Bose is in England on a lecture-demonstration tour on his theory that plant response is similar to that of the human beings.  He sprinkles a poisonous chemical on the plant but nothing happens.  The audience bursts into ridiculing laughter.  Touched to the quick, Bose swallows the poison.  Nothing happens to him either.  The hall is stunned for a moment and then bursts into applause.  Somebody (an Englishman?) had replaced the poison with a harmless powder to spite Bose, but the great Indian scientist gets the better of him.

This epocryphal story is significant because it tells us that Bose’s international recognition as a scientist was part of the national consciousness, even though he was perceived as an original thinker on plants rather than as a part of European science machine.


For the world scientific community, J.C. Bose (1858-1937) was and is a pioneering researcher in radio  science .  For Bose himself, his short stunt of radio work was but a preparation for his prolonged  and passionate researches into plant response which much to his regret remained outside the mainstream. For his countrymen Bose was the tangible proof that Indians could be the equals of, and command respect from, their colonial masters.  Many young Indian  professionals now wish, for their own sake, that Bose had opted for royalty rather than respect.


Bose was educated at London and Cambridge and staidly  taught physics for ten years at Presidency college Calcutta (now Kolkata) before he took to research.  Bose learnt about Hertz’s work on radio waves from the latter’s obituary  and decided to study them himself.  Bose presented his first results before the Asiatic Society Calcutta and published them in the Society journal.  According to his friend and colleague, the  well-known chemist P.C. Ray, Bose “had not then realized the importance of the new line of research he had hid upon”.


Bose sent copies of his research paper to his former teacher Lord Rayleigh  who remained his well-wisher and benefactor throughout and to Lord Kelvin, both of whom immediately saw its worth.  Bose’s work on millimeter wavelength radio waves, which lasted from 1894 till  1900 , was characterized by many innovations.  He modified old detectors and made new ones.  In addition, he tested a wide variety of materials fro the purpose, because metals, the focus of research in Europe, would get easily oxidized “in the warm and damp climate of Bengal”.  (As the Nobel Laureate Neville Mott put it, “J.C. Bose was at least 60 years ahead of his time”).  In  this period Bose was sent by the government on a lecturing tour of England and continental Europe during 1896-1897 and then again during 1900-1902 when he visited USA also. An early admirer of the Bose coherer(detector) was the British navy, which used it to established effective radio link between a torpedo boat and friendly ships.   The Electric Engineer while commending “the substantial and workmanlike form of ‘Coherer’ devised by Professor Bose”, expressed “surprise that no secret was at any time made as to its construction, so that it has been open to all the world to adopt it for practical and possibly money-making purposes.”


Indeed in early 1901, as Bose recalled, “this multimillionaire”, “ the proprietor of a reputed telegraph company”, came “abegging” “with a Patent form in hand” proposing “to take half of the profit, and finance the business in the bargain”.  But “to the business man’s frank surprise,  not to say disgust”, Bose declined the offer. Exasperated by Bose’s “quixotic” approach towards money, two of his lady friends, British-born Margaret Noble (better known as Sister Nivedita) and American-born Mrs. Sara Bull on their own initiative obtained in 1904 an American patent in Bose’s name (for his “galena  single contact-point receiver”).  Bose, however, remained unmoved and refused to encash the patent.  The irony of the situation seems to have gone unnoticed.  Here in Nivedita we have a spiritualist advocating the cause of patents and royalties and a physics professor dismissing the idea.  The reason must be sought in their backgrounds:  Nivedita was a product of the  industrial Europe while Bose was a child of the orientalised East.


The president of the French Academy of Sciences, M. Cornu, “whose generous appreciation remains one of Bose’s most valued reminiscence”,  exhorted Bose: “You must try to revive the grand traditions of your race, which bore aloft the torchlight of art and science and was the leader of civilization two thousand years ago.”  Similarly, the London Spectator wrote: “We can see no reason whatever why the Asiatic mind, turning from its absorption in insoluble problems, should not betake itself ardently, thirstily, hungrily, to the research into Nature.”


These orientalist views were echoed by the Indians themselves.  Thus the well-known Nobel prize winning Bengal poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote to Bose saying, with excusable poetic excess, that Bose was God’s instrument in removing India’s shame. (The 19th century God operated through Europe.)


Bose’s own anti-patent position is explained in his authorized 1920 biography written by his close friend Patrick Geddes, “Simply stated, it is the position of the old rishis of India, of whom he is increasingly recognized by his countrymen as a renewed type, and whose best teaching was ever open to all willing to accept it.”  Bose carried on his shoulders the full weight of his country’s defensiveness.


Bose’s interpretation of the old rishidom was directed as much at Europe as his own country.  Knowledge in ancient India had remained confined to an exclusive group.  The new knowledge should cut across caste and class barriers.


The closing years of the 19th century saw Bose and Ray as respected members of the European science club.  At the same time, an Indian (Atul Chatterjee) came first in the coveted Indian Civil Services examination beating many British candidates.  These successes were the first tangible proof that the Indians could be the equal of their European masters.


In this context it will be relevant to recall the opinion  of the the Bengal Lieut.-Governor to the Viceroy  expressed 20 years previously:No doubt the alumni of our schools and colleges do become as a class discontented.But this arises partly from our higher education being too much in the direction of law,public administration, and prose literature, where they may possibly imagine, however erroneously, that they  may approach to competition with us But we shall do more and more to direct their thoughts towards practical science, where they must inevitably feel their utter inferiority to us” [Note , practical science here means technical skills as taught in a polytechnic]


The legitimacy for the British rule over India came from the discovery of Indo-European linguistic commonality then interpreted in ethnic terms.  The thesis propounded by the Europeans went like this:  Upper caste Hindus and Europeans were brothers, with their present territories clearly demarcated.  While Indian “intellectual acuteness in Metaphysics and Languages” was “frankly acknowledged”, it was asserted that “India had no aptitude for the exact methods of science”, which must therefore be left to the Europeans.  Such arguments were  even placed on record in an attempt to thwart Bose’s appointment.  Bose would return to this again and again.  Role models are produced by self-assured nations.  Defensive societies can only deliver counter-examples.


Seductive orientalism seems to be at work again.  Currently, India is doing some petty jobbery in IT sector by employing its trained manpower beneath their intellect, education and training.   To encourage Indians to continue doing so, they are being told that as inventors of zero they have a natural flair for numbers!


There can be doubt, as P.C. Ray reminded the audience assembled in 1916 to greet Bose on his knighthood, that “If he had taken out patents for the apparatus and instruments which he had invented, he could have made millions by their sale”.  More importantly, he would perhaps have become an Indian  role-model for production of wealth through science.  As it is, Bose abandoned radio waves altogether, and there were no trained students to continue the research.  Thus inspite of Bose’s epoch-making researches, technical physics could not be institutionalized.  (This is in contrast to chemistry where P.C. Ray succeeded in founding a tradition.) 


Hundred years after Bose, India seems to have came to the rather painful conclusion that it is unlikely to make any worthwhile scientific inventions any more.  It  has therefore decided to invent a J.C. Bose that did not exist before. Some years ago (in December 1997), a well-respected Kolkata newspaper The Telegraph carried a story under the rather sensational title “Bose invented Marconi’s wireless”.  It was based on a report by some US-based Indian engineers, one of whom was quoted as saying: “A combination of factors like naivete about patenting, plain misfortune and politics of the contemporary times weighed against Bose” Similarly, a  1995 book on Bose’s alma mater St. Xavier’s College remarks wrongly and unnecessarily that Bose “never got international recognition”.   The same point is made on a website: “ During his lifetime Bose never considered all the dark games being played behind him.”  The construction is quaint probably because of literal translation from an Indian language, but the meaning is clear. 


This assessment is unhistorical and an exercise in time-warp.  It presents Bose as a victim of circumstances and conspiracies which he was not.  It seeks to assign to Bose and his associates motivations and aspirations that did not exist then, but are an afterthought.  It attempts to evaluate Bose in a time-frame that came into being later and which Bose could not have anticipated. Seen in today’s frame of reference , Bose should have viewed his researches asbeing outsourced to me from Europe and billed them accordingly.


As we have seen Europe’s encouragement to, support for and recognition of Bose’s pioneering research were unstinted and spontaneous.  He was offered a professorship at Cambridge University.  He was the first professionally trained mainstream Indian scientist to be elected a fellow of the prestigious Royal Society of London.


 He was fully aware of the commercial implication of his radio work and conscientiously wanted no part of it.  Bose’s researches were already published and therefore public property.  It would be unfair to grudge Marconi his practical and commercial success.  After all both he and Bose achieved what they aspired for. 


Insistence on the addition of Bose’s name as a footnote in Marconi’s biography will be an exercise in historical nitpicking.  There may be some solace in the invention of an unhistorical J.C. Bose who would mirror our current economic and technical frustrations.  But what is needed is the positioning of J.C. Bose in a temporal context and the creation of new J.C. Boses who would be active , relevant  and rich in the present context. // 


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