Animesh Chatterjee – The Servant and the Electrical Engineer

LTU Explorers


Servants were assigned great symbolic significance – both positive and negative – in the domestic sphere in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century India. Numerous sources testify to that period’s fascination with servants. For the British residents in India, home was assigned as a ‘significant space intended to both constitute and to express the culture of an imperial power’, and Indian servants within the Anglo-Indian household played an important role in the affirmation of the Anglo-Indians’ position as rulers.[1] The several guidebooks on household management available to middle-class female British residents in India discussed a range of strategies to survive the local conditions within the Subcontinent, how to furnish and organise living areas and interiors of the bungalow, house, or flat without access to the usual furnishings or items of an English home and, most importantly, how to maintain imperial rule within the domestic sphere by maintaining the unequal power relationships between…

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Impossible Performance on the Part of the Grass (bits from the archives)


In 1892, British electrical engineers of the Department of Telegraphs in Calcutta, as part of an exercise, buried a piece of india-rubber cable core treated to withstand attacks by termites. After six months, when the cable was dug up, engineers found grass growing through the cable. On 1 February 1893, P. V. Luke, a member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, wrote the following in his letter to the secretary of the institution:

What at first sight appears to be an impossible performance on the part of the grass seems less so when you come to examine the hard, sharp, needle-like points which characterise the roots of this species of grass.*

*P. V. Luke, ‘A new danger to which underground wires in India are exposed’, Journal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, 22:104 (1893), pp. 146-147 (pp. 146-147)

Some brilliant cartoons from the ‘Wireless World’ magazine (1915)


The state of history of science in India (part 1)


As Ernest Renan said a century ago: ‘Getting history wrong is an essential part of being a nation.’ It is the professional business of historians to dismantle such mythologies, unless they are content – and I am afraid national historians have often been – to be the servants of ideologists.

Eric Hobsbawm, On History, p.35

Several contemporary interpretations of the history of science in India are close to being questionable, to put it mildly. These accounts of the history of science in India are replete with specifically Hindu renditions, which present India’s past contributions to science as dazzlingly glorious and modern, only to be ruined later by Islamic and British rulers. The past, according to these accounts, has been so glorious that the Defence Minister claims scientists in the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) must learn the ancient hindu metallurgical practices of turning human and animal bones into indestructible metals. There has also been a recent push to distance the history of India from the ‘external’ imagery of the Christian and Islamic West and create a Hindu historical vision of ‘our modernity’ as opposed, and much superior, to ‘their modernity’. This has led to people making claims, amongst many others, of manned flights existing in ‘Hindu’ India almost 3000 years before the Wright brothers’ construction of the aeroplane.

Such focus on India’s ‘Hindu’ specialness neglects crucial aspects of the history of science in India – the exchange of knowledge with the West and the East; and Indian intellectual traditions that influenced, and were influenced by, Western, Islamic and Eastern knowledge. While it is not wrong to write revisionist histories, historical claims should nevertheless be supported with extensive archival and historical research. This isn’t the case with most recent claims made regarding India’s history of science. It cannot be said that scholars in India are not producing definitive research, but the growing number of dubious research and researchers is just one of many reasons why the history of science must make its presence felt as an academic discipline in India.

The problem though is not just the absence of history of science as an academic discipline, but also the status of humanities studies in general within the Indian education system. In a 2014 interview for the Wall Street Journal, the cultural and literary theorist Homi K Bhabha said what almost all humanities academics in India agree with: “The prestige of humanities is at an all-time ebb, partly because there is a public sense that the most profitable way of making a livelihood in the global era is through technology or finance.” This has resulted in what Eric Hobsbawm states to be one of the reasons why  the importance of history and its lessons have diminished: “the a-historical, engineering, problem-solving approach by means of mechanical models and devices.” Such an approach, although successful in producing marvellous results in several fields, does not allow for science and engineering students to discuss the historical, social, political and cultural dynamics of the field they study, and to understand how the roles and values of inter-disciplinary and cross-cultural research that the humanities strives for are crucial to the creation of better technologies and societies.

I worked (and hope to continue working in the future) in this direction in 2014-15 through my involvement in the Science Park in Pune, India. I not only worked to help the Science Park develop its outreach and education programmes, but also drew heavily on my experience as a student undergoing the conversion from being an engineer to an aspiring historian in helping science and engineering students and trainees engage with historical, social and cultural issues outside their curriculum. Thinking about the historical and social aspects of the subjects they study forces students to think critically about the world around us, and their place in society as future scientists and engineers. However, exposing engineering and science students all over India to historical approached and methods would require bringing together more research-active historians, philosophers and sociologists of science and technology, with their participation facilitated by universities and institutions such as the History of Science Society, the British Society for the History of Science, the Society for the History of Technology and many more.

One of the many ways in which institutions such as the HSS can contribute to these efforts is by not only reaching out to academics and researchers studying the history/philosophy of science in India (either in India or abroad), but by also facilitating dissemination of their research in public forums in India. Science museums and centres in India provide the most lucrative platforms for such endeavours, since these would only add to a centre’s reputation, thereby increasing footfall and funding. The HSS could also look into training academics and researcher, who would then train staff and curators in science museums and centres in India , since almost all such institutions suffer from a lack of trained staff and funding for training. Such endeavours would not only help the HSS reach out to historians of science (and other historians) in India, and improve its presence in India, but also help academics and researchers be involved in curriculum reform in, beginning with science centres, schools and universities.

There are several other advantages to institutions such the HSS reaching out to academics and researchers working on the history of science and technology in India, and helping them collaborate with formal (colleges, schools, policy authorities, research institutions, companies) and non-formal institutions (science centres, museums):

  1. working with companies and research institutions can help such organisations enhance public understanding of complex and controversial scientific and technological issues.
  2. increasing access to historical and archival collections, thereby enhancing educational innovation.
  3. creating networks and stimulating dialogue.
  4. providing improvements to public space and urban quarters through an increased public understanding of the history of buildings and cities, also enabling constructive engagement for those sections of society generally excluded from a range of conventional public debates and decisions.

… Continued

Article Review: ‘Domesticating electric power’

Article Review

‘Domesticating electric power: Growth of industry, utilities and research in colonial Calcutta’ by Suvobrata Sarkar

The Indian Economic and Social History Review, 52, 3(2015): 357-389

This article, published in The Indian Economic and Social History Review, is derived from Sarkar’s doctoral dissertation at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The article, according to Sarkar, studies “the impetus of the Bengali public for modern technology – electricity, its impact on the industry and the emerging trends” (p.359). The introduction asks some important questions with regards to the history of technology, and especially electrification, in colonial India. The overall narrative, however, is just a conglomeration of facts, dates and numbers, with several assumptions that the electrification of colonial India was historically imminent, and hints of technological determinism.

Beginning with a historiography of the electric power industry worldwide, the article makes a good start. It discusses, in addition to several works on the history of electrification in the West, a recent work on the electrification of the Madras Presidency. There is also a recognition of the fact that the acceptance or perception of a technology does not just relate to its suitability to a certain region, but also to economics, politics and technical knowledge. However, the discussion seems to simply be a diversion to the article’s teleological account of the inevitable acceptance of electricity by Indians. An example of such an account is evident when Sarkar states that while the electric supply company in Calcutta was apprehensive of Indians’ acceptance of this new technology, “all their fears proved groundless and electricity was gradually very successful” (p.361).

The electrification of India, and especially its acceptance into Indian homes and industries, I would argue, was not as straightforward as Sarkar makes it seem. It is important to note that the introduction of public electricity supply in India coincided with Indian nationalist movements making the Indian household as significant a setting for a full-fledged political struggle as the streets and government offices.[i] British engineers and administrators realised that with the domestic domain becoming the site for resistance to British political and economic rule, there was a need to make Western technologies attractive to the Indian populace. In Our Work in the Nineteenth Century, a paper presented to Lord James of Hereford on 18 January 1900, the authors wrote that “if steam and electricity are pouring new wine into the East, with its patient deep disdain of the Christian West, it is necessary that new bottles should be prepared for its reception.”[ii]

While one of the footnotes in the article does mention marketing tactics used by supply companies to entice Indians to use electricity in their homes, the historical significance of the primary source and its context is lost within the greater narrative of presumptive acceptance that the article strives for. Sarkar also claims that “…in a conflict between gas and electricity, the victory of the latter was inevitable. Being a superior technology, as an illumine electric light stood ahead of gas” (p.365). On page 367, Sarkar writes about the Indian business class’s acceptance of electricity over gas, oil and other forms of energy: “As soon as they realised the power of electricity, they chose this new technology rejecting the earlier versions.” Such claims show a simple adoption of a deterministic outlook linked to the modernisation theory; a form of historical analysis that has now been replaced by more complex techno-cultural studies that look beyond the usual schemes of modernity and acceptance of technology.[iii] In addition, Sarkar uses claims made in advertisements (published in newspapers and journals) for electric lighting companies as evidence of the popularity of electricity amongst the masses, without considering the agenda or context behind the publication of such advertisements.

The teleological narrative that historians of technology have long rejected is also evident in the article when, after discussing the economics of installing street lighting in Calcutta from the 1890s to the early 1900s, Sarkar writes: “Civic life in Calcutta is now unthinkable without street lighting” (p.363). It is also hard to understand why, in his discussions of the complex concerns of public safety and administration with regards to the laying of electric cables, Sarkar claims that the Calcutta Electricity Supply Corporation (CESC) had no practical experience of laying underground cables in tropical conditions. Much was written and said in India from the 1890s onwards about telegraph and electric cabling, mostly to reinforce the connection between electricity supply and local conditions. The department of telegraphs in Calcutta conducted exercises to understand the effects of local conditions (soil, vegetation and climate) on underground cables as early as 1892.[iv] Thus, to claim that an organisation such as the CESC would have no prior experience of local conditions in Calcutta is farfetched.

The section ‘Evolution of Electrical Engineering’ studies the new institutions and human capital that the new technology facilitated. One of the major developments was the introduction of electrical engineering lectures and classes at the Civil Engineering College in Sibpur in the late 1890s. The ‘development’ of electrical engineering as a field of study in engineering colleges in Calcutta, and the growing need for trained electrical engineers for the electrical industry was, nonetheless, still subservient to colonial interests. Sarkar claims that despite the hindrances to Indian entrepreneurship by colonial engineers and administrators, “the demand for electrical engineering among the Bengali intelligentsia was steadily on the increase” (p.377).

Sarkar studies the rise of electrical engineering courses and facilities, and the production of Indian (mostly Bengali) electrical engineers in several engineering colleges across Calcutta (and Bengal) as a consequence of Bengalis’ constant strive towards modernity. He writes: “The [sic] electric power was to be the key to a modern industrial economy excited Bengali intellectuals” (p.380), and that “Bengalis not only welcomed electricity but also launched a monthly journal Bijoli on the subject by the third decade of the twentieth century” (p.380). These analyses are problematic. First, attributing the phenomenal acceptance of electricity and electrical engineering education, as Sarkar claims, to the intelligence and entrepreneurship of Bengalis belies fact that the establishment of engineering colleges in India and the Public Works Department (which employed most of the Indian graduate engineers) was a product of the ‘colonial requirement’ of educated but cheap labour.[v] Sarkar, in a section of the essay, accepts the colonial control over electrical engineering projects and employment, but totally ignores the observation in the next section to reinforce his claim of Bengali industry. To also claim that ‘Bengalis’, the overarching term that constituted the rich and the poor, the intelligentsia and the uneducated, the urban and the rural, nationalists and colonialists, all welcomed electricity is historically erroneous. Given the political struggle for independence at the time, not all Bengalis were supportive of colonial technologies and, given the variety of social strata that Bengalis constituted, certainly not all Bengalis would have either launched Bijoli or even known about it.

The article goes on to discuss the impacts of several nationalist enterprises on the electrical industry in Calcutta. However, Indian nationalism can be read here as simply being too small a worry, or simply accepting of the move towards modernity, resulting in a “logical culmination” to the nationalisation of the power sector. In the conclusion, Sarkar writes that the article looked “into the more abstract role of ideas, cultural beliefs and the contributions of technology towards a growing sense of nationalism and identity” (p.385). This view seems to have been imposed on the article, which has no mention of anything on cultural beliefs, nationalism or identity. Nationalism is studied as a uniform acceptance of electricity as a means of development followed by an opposition to British control over electricity supply resulting in nationalisation of electricity supply. Sarkar, while making such an argument, ignores several studies on the multifaceted nature and varied meanings of nationalism in colonial India. The notion of identity discussed in this essay focuses solely on ‘Bengalis’, meaning that all Bengalis shared a common sense of social, cultural, economic and political identity. The article could have done better with an understanding that indigenous society (including Bengalis) constituted social, political and gendered hierarchies, which meant that Indian (including Bengali) engagement with the British was never straightforward.[vi]

Bengali ingenuity is given one last flourish in the conclusions, with the author stating that Indians appropriated the new knowledge of electricity and produced models that competed with Western products and systems. There is mention of the Bengal Lamp, an electric bulb manufacturing company set up by three Bengali brothers, “ushering a new era in the electric bulb manufacturing industry of the country” (p.386). Whether the company made new kinds of bulbs, or just manufactured copies of already existing bulb technologies is not mentioned.

This is not to say that the article does not possess novelties. The footnotes contain some archival materials never before seen in studies on the history of technology in colonial India, mainly because the history of electrification is still an under-researched field. The author makes good use of biographical, journalistic and official primary material, but their significance and novelty is lost within a historical narrative that more recent studies on the history of technology have either superseded or simply rejected.

[i] See Bipan Chandra, Mridula Mukherjee et al, India’s Struggle for Independence (New Delhi: Penguin Books, 1989); Bipan Chandra, Nationalism and Colonialism in Modern India (New Delhi: Orient Black Swan, 2010); Bipan Chandra, Essays on Colonialism (New Delhi: Orient Black Swan, 2009); Sumit Sarkar, The Swadeshi Movement in Bengal (Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2010); Partha Chatterjee, The Partha Chatterjee Omnibus (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999); Partha Chatterjee, ‘Colonialism, Nationalism and Colonised Women: The Contest in India.’ The American Ethnologist, Vol.16, No.4 (November 1989), 622-633

[ii] William Lee-Warner, Martin Conway and Author Rigg, ‘Our Work in India in the Nineteenth Century’, Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, 48:2463 (February 2, 1900), pp.213-244 (p.220)

[iii] See: Graeme Gooday, Domesticating Electricity: Technology, Uncertainty and Gender, 1880-1914 (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2008); David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900 (London: Profile Books, 2007)

[iv] P.V. Luke, ‘A new danger to which underground wires in India are exposed’, Journal of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, 22:104 (1893), pp. 146-147

[v] See: Daniel Headrick, The Tentacles of Progress: Technology Transfer in the Age of Imperialism, 1850-1940 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988); Roy MacLeod and Deepak Kumar (eds.), Technology and the Raj: Western Technology and Technical Transfers to India (New Delhi: Sage, 1995), especially the chapter by Arun Kumar, ‘Colonial Requirements and Engineering Education: The Public Works Department, 1847-1947’.

On the rise of professional engineers and industrialisation in colonial India, see Aparajith Ramnath’s PhD thesis submitted to Imperial College London in 2013: Engineers in India: Industrialisation, Indianisation and the State, 1900-1947.

[vi] See: Douglas M Peers and Nandini Gooptu (eds.), India and the British Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); Maria Misra, Vishnu’s Crowded Temple: India since the Great Rebelion (London: Penguin, 2007); Sekhar Bandopadhyay, Nationalist Movement in India: A Reader (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009)