, which being the old true way of East India printing and stayning such kinds of goods”. In 1796, Sherwin however conceded before the House of Lords that his printed cloth “would not bear washing”. Thomas 1924,p.209. Thomas 1924,p.209.
In 1676, a fourteen-year patent was granted to one William Sherwin (1607-1687) “for the invention of a new and speedy way for printing broadcloth, which being the old true way of East India printing and stayning such kinds of goods”. In 1796, Sherwin however conceded before the House of Lords that his printed cloth “would not bear washing”. Thomas 1924,p.209. Thomas 1924,p.209.
Between 1815 and 1832 the value of exported Indian cotton goods fell from 1.3 million pound sterling to a mere 1,00,000. In the same period, the value of English cotton goods imported into India rose from a paltry 26,000 pound sterling to 4,00,000 pound sterling. Ashworth 1858, p. 256. Dutt 1949, Vol. 2, p. 101.
In the same period, the value of English cotton goods imported into India rose from a paltry 26,000 pound sterling to 4,00,000 pound sterling. Ashworth 1858, p. 256. Dutt 1949, Vol. 2, p. 101.
The Making of Scientific, Industrial and
President IAU Commission 41: History of Astronomy
Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Mohali, Punjab
27 July 2013
Throughout the 19th
century in its
encounters with the East Europe was
in a learning mode. Cultural
superiority and racial arrogance set
in in England in the 1830s.
It is no more than a coincidence that
the first British ship reached the
Indian coast the same year (1608)
the telescope was invented in The
Netherlands. This numerology
brings home the fact that modern
and technology grew hand in hand
with maritime trade, colonial
expansion and dominance over
nature and fellow human beings.
The key developments are these:
(1) For combined reasons of
healthcare, human curiosity and
commerce, medical botany and
natural history of distant lands were
studied through interaction with the
(2)For the safety of navigation,
scientific instrumentation and exact
sciences were developed as a self-
contained European exercise.
(3) Machinery was developed to
replace the Indian weaver. This was
also a self-contained, British,
(4)Europe at large took to
development of dyeing and printing
In 1676, a 14-year patent was
granted to one William Sherwin
“for the invention of a new and
speedy way for printing broadcloth
which being the old true way of East
India printing and stayning such
kinds of goods”. In 1696, he
however conceded before the House
of Lords that his printed cloth
“would not bear washing”.
Intelligence on natural materials and
their use was indeed required from India.
i) In 1742, on instructions from his
superiors, the South India based
Jesuit Gaston Laurent Coeurdoux
(1691-1779) collected information
from dyers whom he had converted
and sent the account to Europe,
where it was widely read and where
it remained relevant for a long time.
It is a measure of the priorities of the
time that Coeurdoux’s fundamental
work as a pioneering researcher in
philology went unnoticed.
ii)The special process of Turkish red
used the Indian Chaya root and
Kasha leaves. Introduced into France
by an Armenian, it baffled chemists
for a long time until it was cleared
up, in 1902, by a calico-printer at
Leyden, Felix Dreissen, who got the
secret from a native dyer in Madurai
In their 18th century encounters with
India and the East in general, the
trading nation of British displayed
genuine interest in, respect for, and
desire to benefit and profit from
traditional empirical technologies. In
the industrial Britain of the early
19th century, this admiration was
replaced by openly expressed
disdain. This is understandable. You
cannot lord over people you respect.
There is a persistent pattern in
Britain’s scientific and industrial
discoveries of the early 19th century.
Once a milestone was reached in
Western science, details of the steps
leading to it were obliterated, and
modern science and technology was
presented as a stand-alone, without
I would like to illustrate this with the
help of 3 examples: zinc, steel, and
India devised zinc metallurgy, before
Alexander’s time, to be able to prepare
high-zinc content gold-like brass for
making Buddha idols.
As late as 1735, the Swedish chemist
Georg Brandt (1694-1768), who
identified cobalt as an element,
believed that ‘zinc could not be
reduced to metal except in the
presence of copper’.6
But, the commercial interests knew
better. In 1738, William Champion
(1709-1789) obtained a patent for
the extraction of pure zinc through
inverse distillation, and set up his
works in 1743.7
The Swedish professor Torbern
Bergman wrote in 1779 that several
years previously ‘A certain
Englishman’ went to China ‘for the
purpose of learning the art, returned
safely home, indeed, and appears to
have been sufficiently instructed in
the secret, but he carefully concealed
it’. A little later, in 1797, the German
professor Johann Bergman asserted
that the Englishman went not to
China but India for the purpose. 9
Seen from Europe it did not quite
matter whether the original home of
metallic zinc was India or China.
Not surprisingly, there is no English
account of any sort.
A 100 years previously, in 1608, the
Dutch optician Hans Lipperhey was
denied a patent on the telescope, ‘on
the ground that it is evident that
several others have knowledge of the
Metallic zinc may have been
common knowledge in far off places,
but in a Euro-centric world if a thing
was new for Europe it did not exist
Since pre-Alexandrian times, India
had been producing high quality
steel by melting pure iron in the
presence of carbonaceous material.
Europe already knew about its
cutting-edge properties because the
Damascus swords made out of it
were used against the Christian
Crusaders. Specimens and some
details about the making of Indian
steel reached Europe when the direct
trade began. In 1675 Robert Hooke
noted in his diary: ‘bringing soe as to
melt made the best steel after it had
been wrought over again’. This was
significant because Europe had
earlier associated the properties
of steel not with the process but with
the quality of the ore.
Benjamin Huntsman (1704-1776)
has been invariably described as
‘English inventor of crucible
Was he inspired by the Indian
method? No contemporaneous
account would even admit the
question, leave aside discuss it.
James Moore Swank, US expert on
iron and steel, wrote in his 1892
History of the Manufacture of Iron
in All Ages that the details of
manufacture of Indian steel ‘in our
day’ ‘plainly suggest the crucible
process perfected by Huntsman’.
This came not from Britain but from
USA and that too when the 19th
was coming to an end.
While discussing its own inventions
and discoveries, Europe did not
consider the Eastern antecedents to
be relevant. But when it came to the
But when it came to the Indian
scientific tradition, the roots, real or
imagined, were considered more
important than the fruits.
Indian mathematical astronomical
tradition built over a millennium 6th
century CE onwards was dismissed
out of hand as imitative and its
Greek origins emphasized. There
was of course no mention of the
post- Alexandrian Egypt and Iraq
inputs that had gone into making of
the Greek science.
Far greater ingenuity was exercised
in the case of chemistry.
When a 14th century chemistry text
(Rasaratnasamuchchaya) named 41
previous authors, it was declared
with a straight face that the names
were mostly apocryphal .10
Similarly, when the author of
another Sanskrit text Rasasara
explicitly acknowledged his debt to
‘the traditions and opinions of the
Baudhas [ the Buddhists]’,
it was said that ‘ by Baudhas, the
author probably meant the
Surely Arabs would have liked to
hear that. But it was not considered
necessary to inform them. They in
their place were told that their role in
the world history of science had
been no more than as librarians and
archivists for preserving Greek
science till Europe was in a position
to take its heritage back.
In the closing years of the 18th
century, samples of Indian steel
wootz were received in Britain , first
by chance and then on request. They
were investigated thoroughly
under the auspices of the Royal
Society. How significant the
introduction of wootz was can be
seen from the following:
About 1796, a wootz penknife was
presented to King George III.
•Sir Thomas Frankland sealed his letters
to Mushet ‘with the Sanscrit characters
denoting wootz, in full and prominent
• One of the trade cards of John Stodart
FRS, dated about 1820, carried the
J. Stodart, at 401, Strand, London,
Surgeon’s Instruments, Razors and
other Cutlery made from Wootz, a
steel from India, preferred by Mr
Stodart to the best steel in Europe.
• Examination of wootz samples (in UK)
yielded two patents ( Mushet 1800,
Mackintosh 1825) while another ( Heath
1839) resulted from an observation of
steelmaking in South India.
•Heath in turn was at the receiving end
half a century later.
• Heath wrote, referring to the patents of
Mushet and Mackintosh that ‘the Indian
process combines the principles of both
the above described methods’.
•Half a century later, Heath himself was
at the receiving end :
Henry Bessemer (1813-1898) wrote
in his autobiography that Heath
conceived the idea of his ‘invention’
from ‘noticing in the native Wootz
steel-making of India the marvellous
effect of manganese’
•In 1819, Stodart entrusted Michael
Faraday with the task of analysis of
wootz samples. As Faraday wrote in his
diary, he ‘was desirous , among other
researches, to make an experiment, with
a view to imitating Wootz’. Indeed one
of the earliest successes reported in the
paper presented to the Royal Institution
in 1820 was the preparation of a
specimen which had ‘all the appreciable
characteristics of the best Bombay
Wootz’. Faraday wrongly concluded that
the strength of the wootz came from
aluminum. It however was a
‘fruitful error’ because it gave birth to
the new discipline of alloy steels. .
•Faraday (1819) erroneously believed
that the strength of wootz came not from
the process but from the presence of
other materials. This was a fruitful error,
because it opened the new field of alloy
The influential British metallurgist
John Percy in 1864 called wootz
making the Hindoo process of
steelmaking and its furnace the
Hindoo furnace. The nomenclature is
If it was a Hindu process, it called
for suitable Europeanization without
acknowledgement. ( Note that in
India itself historians used terms like
Hindu chemistry, Hindu
mathematics, Hindu sine.)
Variolation (inoculation with human
pox) was introduced in England in
1721, and vaccination (using
cowpox) in 1799. 20
Variolation continued to be practised
at the smallpox hospital in London
until 1822. It was altogether stopped
by an Act of Parliament in 1840.
In their time both variolation and
vaccination met with great hostility.
A smallpox hospital was opened in
London in 1746. ‘For a long time,
however, the prejudices against the
hospital were so great, that the
patients on leaving it were abused
and insulted in the street;
wherefore they were not suffered to
depart until the darkness of the night
enabled them to do it unobserved by
the populace’ .21
In the 1810s, Norwich city embarked
on a plan of persuading the poor to
get themselves vaccinated by paying
them a cash incentive of half a
crown. The plan in itself was quite a
success, but smallpox was not
Report of the Pauper Vaccination in
Norwich city for 1812–1813 pointed
out that the disease was ‘kept in
existence by unscrupulous
practitioners from London
who travelled to different places to
inoculate people with smallpox.
The only remedy lay, the Report
asserted, ‘in passing a law, imposing
a severe penalty on any one, directly
or indirectly concerned in the act of
Variolation had been practised in the
eastern parts of India since great
antiquity. Vaccination was officially
introduced in India in 1803.
Forgetting the resistance first the
introduction of variolation and then
of vaccination had met with in
Britain, the colonial government
wanted the Indians to overnight
become appreciative of the English
‘spirit of benevolence’ and express
gratitude for being conveyed ‘the
fruits of the happy discovery
In Calcutta, there were traditional
inoculators who variolated a small
fraction of the population creating an
epidemic. The situation was so
similar to the one that Norwich had
previously faced that paragraphs
from the Norwich Report were
plagiarized in the1831 Calcutta
Report written by Dr William
Cameron, Superintendent-General of
Vaccination, . This Report in turn
was enthusiastically cited in 1850
by the Smallpox Commissioners,
who added some remarks of their
‘in a country where practices such as
Suttee and Infanticide were, until
lately, deemed justifiable on the
score of Religious usage, neither will
there be wanting bigots to mislead
the ignorant Hindoos, and to
prejudice their credulous and simple
minds, against whatever may be
falsely represented to them as an
innovation, or an interference with
their religious privileges’ .24
Note that when variolation is
practised in London even after
vaccination has been introduced,
smallpox inoculators are merely
called immoral and mischievous, and
sought to be dealt with by a strict
law. But when the same
phenomenon is observed in Calcutta,
memories of suttee and infanticide
are revived and the blame placed at
the door of Hindu bigotry, prejudice
Incidentally, if the British in India
had followed the Norwich model and
offered cash incentive to those
opting for vaccination, it is very
likely that prejudices against it
would have disappeared or at least
England came a long way in the
period from the start of variolation in
1721 to its abolition in 1840. An
industrialized England was far more
confidant and arrogant than a trading
England had been. The period
around the 1830s was important for
a number of convergent reasons.
In history of technology, grant of a
patent constitutes a landmark; for
growth of industry its expiry.
Cartwright’s patent on power-driven
loom expired in 1801 opening the
field wide open. By this time
navigation had become scientific and
safe, and the deadly scurvy been
Merchants- turned -rulers in India
could now forcibly extinguish the
age - old manufacture of fine
textiles. Britain’s industrial progress
can be gauged from the figures of
consumption of cotton.
In 1764 the import was 3.8 million
lb. In 1785 it shot up to 18 million
lb. In 1830 the figure was 265
million lb, and climbing up and up .
Between 1815 and 1832 the value of
cotton goods exported from India
fell from 1.3 million pound sterling
to a mere 1,00,000. In the same
period, the value of English cotton
goods imported into India rose from
a paltry 26,000 pound sterling to
In 1835, the colonial government
brought its transition from the
Mughal administration to an end by
introducing a new education policy:
i)Persian was banished from office.
ii)Generous and uncritical support to
Sanskrit, Arabic and Persian
learning was discontinued.
iii)English was made the official
language ( Bentinck-Macaulay).
Significantly, the new Government
policy was facilitated by the
successful change in the missionary
position that had just taken place. The
missionaries moved to Calcutta from the
mofussil; targeted elitist sections of the
society rather the marginal; and focused
on English rather than the vernacular.
To sum up, racial arrogance set in
when Britain’s transition from a
trading nation to an industrial power
was completed, that is when British
machines finally made the fine
Indian weaver entirely redundant.
In 1837, a Bengal cavalry officer,
after an exploratory tour of Egypt
and Arabia in connection with steam
navigation, declared in his report: ‘It
seems to be a law of nature that the
civilized nations should conquer and
possess the countries in a state of
barbarianism and by such means,
however unjustifiable it may appear
at first, extend the blessings of
knowledge, industry and commerce
among people hitherto sunk in the
most gloomy depths of superstitious
Interestingly, the 1977 Cambridge
History of Africa, Vol. 5 (p. 495)
quotes this passage, but wrongly
says ‘ It seems to me’ rather than
‘It seems to be’, making the
observation personal rather than
The 1837 use of the phrase ‘law of
nature’ in the context of human
affairs is significant.
It is as if the authorship of the
powerful knowledge system of
modern science bestowed such
cultural and racial superiority on the
Europeans as to give them a divine
right to rule over others.
1 Thomas 1924, p. 207.
2 Thomas 1924, p. 211.
3 Hegde 1991, p. 58.
4 Beckmann 1797, p. 75.
5 Beckmann 1814, pp.72-73.
6 Mellor 1957, p.403.
7 Kochhar 1994.
8 Bergman 1788, p.317.
9 Beckmann 1814, p.91.
10 Ray 1918, p. 101.
11 Ray 1918, p. 91.
12 Mushet 1840, pp. 662-663
13 Mushet 1840, p.670.
14 Hadfield 1932, pp.225-226.
15 ‘Give me the fruitful error any time, full of seeds,
bursting with its own correction. You can keep your
sterile truth for yourself’- Vilfredo Pareto 1848-
16 Hadfield 1932, p.225.
17 Heath however was unable to draw any financial
benefit from his patent, because of its imperfect
wording; see , e.g., Charles Dickens’ Household
Worlds, 1853, Vol. 6, pp. 230-232
18 Van Nostrand’s Eclectic Engineering Magazine,
1870, Vol. 3, No. 21, p. 280.
19 Percy 1864, p. 774.
20 Shoolbred 1805, p. 1.
21 Woodville 1796, p. 238.
22 Shoolbred 1805, p. 9).
23 Brimnes 2004, p. 221.
24 Report of the Smallpox Commissioners, p 54,
(Calcutta: Military Orphan Press).
25 Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal 1814,
Vol. 10. p. 124.
26 Mackenzie 1837, p. 490.
Bergman, Torbern (1784) Physical and Chemical Essays,
Vol. 2, p. 314 (London: J. Murray).
Brimnes, N. ( 2004) Variolation, vaccination and popular
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crucible steel of India. Archaeomaterials, Vol.1, pp. 13-51.
Hadfield, Robert (1933) A research on Faraday’s ‘Steel and
Alloys’. Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series
A, Vol. 230, pp. 221-292
Hegde, K.T.M.(1991) An Introduction to Ancient Indian
Metallurgy (Bangalore: Geological Society of India).
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Kochhar, Rajesh (1994) Smelting of ideas [zinc metallurgy].
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Kochhar, Rajesh (2006) Smallpox in the modern scientific
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Vol. 36, pp. 1–8.
Mackenzie, James (1837) ‘Egypt and Arabia’, The Literary
Gazette; and Journal of Belle Lettre, Arts, Sciences & co.,
No.1072, 5 Aug., pp. 489-492.
Mellor, J. W. (1957) A Comprehensive Treatise on Inorganic
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