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)

Problems with “Colonial Science” and “Technology Transfer”

Scholarship on “colonial science” in British India has often in the past concentrated on “the introduction and dissemination of Western ideas, practices and techniques.”[1] Such simple “diffusionist” interpretation of the spread of Western science had plagued not only the study of science in colonial India, but also the scholarship on colonial science in general. The diffusionist model of the simple transfer of a progressive Western science to non-European colonies had been influenced by George Basalla’s seminal 1967 essay, The Spread of Western Science.[2] In the article, Basalla outlines “a three-stage model [that] describes the introduction of modern science into any non-European nation.”[3] In the first phase of Basalla’s model, colonies provide the foundations and source for geographical exploration and scientific analysis; phase two involves a period of “colonial science”, while phase three denotes the completion of the transplantation of Western science and the separation of the scientific tradition of the colonies from the traditions of Western science.

Basalla’s three-stage model remained influential in historical studies denoting Western science as a means for imperial expansion and control of India, instead of development.[4] However, from the 1980s onwards, the dominant theme in the historiographical scholarship of science in colonial India shifted from “diffusion” to diversity. Scholars began to recognise that Western science was seldom simply transferred from the West to India. Not only was technology transfer a complex process, but science and technology was also adapted according to the social and cultural contexts prevalent in India.

The “Centre/Periphery” Concept and “Colonial Science”

One of the concepts that had been central to the study of the history of colonisation and the transfer of scientific knowledge and technology from the West to the colonies was the theory of “centre and periphery”. Originally used in the social sciences, and especially in development economics in the 1950s and 60s, the “centre and periphery” has also been used by historians of science. The centre and periphery approach is usually used in economics and social sciences to depict the economic and political differences between the industrialised countries, and the developing and under-developed countries. The “centre” comprises of those countries that are suppliers of technology and capital, while the “periphery” consists of those countries, which due to the lack of their own resources, or because of the interests of the centre, are importers of products, technologies and ideas from the centre. The centre/periphery concept argues that this model is dependent on the centre being economically and politically dominant, and on the periphery’s aspirations to develop economic and political systems similar to that of the countries of the centre.[5]

Over the years, historians of colonial science and technology transfer have used the centre/periphery concept and written colonial histories with different purposes. While some historians wrote with a view to promote a nationalistic history, with a narrative of how technologies and scientific ideas produced by a nation in the centre were successfully spread across the world, other historians focussed on the adoption or rejection of new scientific ideas and practices by countries of the periphery.[6] In addition, a large number of historical works based on the centre/periphery concept regarded scientific ideas and technologies as material entities, which could be transferred from one place to another as physical goods.[7]

George Basalla’s essay on The Spread of Western Science has been instrumental in combining the centre/periphery concept and the study of colonialism and technology transfer. In the essay, Basalla aims to understand how the “modern” science of Western Europe was diffused to the rest of the world through a three-stage model. In phase-1, Europeans established contact with new lands as a result of trade, conquest or colonisation for settlement. The “nonscientific” societies served as sources of scientific knowledge for European science, which the Europeans gathered through maps, and plant and animal specimens. Although commercial exploitation also played an important role in such scientific study of new lands, Basalla, however, stressed that such exploration was a result of the European scientific culture and its need for scientific data. Also, the scientific knowledge gained from the colonies in the periphery resulted in Western science being modified as a result of the new information. According to Basalla:

European science, its practitioners forced to come to terms with exotic material at home and aborad, underwent a significant transformation while it was in the process of being diffused to a wider world. [8]

In time, the initial phase of exploration and reconnaissance resulted in the second, and more important, phase of “colonial science.” This phase was characterised by increased scientific activity in the colonies. Colonial scientists, who according to Basalla were Europeans, established local institutions in the colonies, replicating the fields of scientific investigations pursued in Europe. Such institutions and practices were dependent on European institutions and expertise, and resulted in what Basalla terms as “an external scientific culture.”[9] Basalla also clarifies that terming colonial science as being dependent on European institutions and expertise did not necessarily mean that it was inferior. Being dependent, according to Basalla, meant that practitioners of colonial science were trained in Europe and followed the methods and field of inquiry as that followed in Europe. Basalla writes:

[T]he colonial scientist works under handicaps at home and relies upon a scientific tradition located abroad. Although the group of men involved in the enterprise of colonial science is larger than that involved in phase-1 collecting, the number has not yet reached the critical size necessary for reciprocal intellectual stimulation and self-sustaining growth.[10]

In phase-3, with the rise of nationalism, colonial science gradually developed into an independent scientific tradition. The colonial periphery achieved scientific autonomy after a constant struggle with European beliefs. According to Basalla, the colonial scientist was replaced by a national of the colony who was trained in science and worked within the boundaries of the country.[11]

Basalla’s model was, for several years, considered useful in historical studies on colonial science and technology transfer, because it showed a linear path to national scientific development. R.K. Kochhar, in his 1991 article, Science in British India: Colonial Tool, stated that “modern science came to India in tow with the Europeans.”[12] In the article, Kochhar claimed that before the arrival of the British, scientific knowledge in India was erratic and motivated only by the curiosity of the locals, and studied the emergence of modern science in India on similar lines as Basalla studied the spread of Western Science.[13] Kochhar too, as Basalla did, proposed a three-stage model for discussing the advent and development of modern science in India. The first stage in Kochhar’s model was the “colonial tool stage”, which consisted of the introduction of science by the British colonists as a colonial tool. In this stage, much like Basalla’s phase-1, the colonists conducted geological and botanical surveys in order to utilise the knowledge for their own benefits. As a result of the exploration and surveying, the colonists established institutions such as the Asiatic Society of Calcutta in 1784, and the Geological Survey of India in 1851.[14] The second stage, called the “peripheral-native stage”, was established once the British were well established in India. In this stage, the British enrolled Indians as cheap labour to the “colonial science machinery.”[15] The third stage, called the “Indian response stage”, was the reaction to the second stage, similar to phase-3 of Basalla’s model, which was a reaction to the “colonial science” phase. In the third stage of Kochhar’s model, Indians began taking initiative in developing self-sustained and independent scientific activities.[16]

Problems with “Colonial Science” and “Technology Transfer”

New historical works have, however, proven Basalla’s and Kochhar’s models to be defective in several veins, and have re-examined the concepts of “technology transfer” and “colonial science”. Roy MacLeod, in his essay, On Visiting the Moving Metropolis: Reflections on the Architecture of Imperial Science (1982), revisited Basalla’s models and proposed an alternative to the understand the relations between the core and the periphery. According to Basalla, the core was a constant and stationary source of scientific knowedge. MacLeod, however, argues that the core was a “moving metropolis”, which was itself dynamic and changed substantially over time. These changes, in MacLeod’s view, also affected the scientific relations between the core and the colonial periphery, and the development of imperial science. MacLeod also pointed out the vagaries of historians’ definitions of the terms “colonial science”, “scientific colonialism”, “imperial science”, and “scientific imperialism”.[17] Although the concepts are closely related, MacLeod stresses that historians needed to logically differentiate between them. According to MacLeod, colonial science was the practice and application of science in the colonies through institutions and other structures, while scientific colonialism defined the processes through which colonial policies were implemented. Also, in MacLeod’s view, British imperial science was similar to colonial science, but only worked to serve the political ideologies and objectives of the “new imperialism” of the nineteenth century, while scientific imperialism was the implementation of science for the purposes of fulfilling imperial doctrine.[18] MacLeod’s notions were useful in illustrating that the spread of Western science as a result of colonialism was not a linear process as Basalla had indicated; contrarily, the spread of Western science and the processes of colonial science were more dynamic and flexible in nature.

David Wade Chambers and Richard Gillespie, in their essay, Locality in the History of Science: Colonial Science, Technoscience, and Indigenous Knowledge (2000), argue that while Basalla’s model was widely accepted by historians of science and colonialism, it failed because it assumed that the patterns of scientific and economic development of the West could be applicable to other parts of the world. The authors state, “without considerable modification this assumption is effectively blind to both history and culture, and is premised on the notion that ‘pre-scientific’ localities, today, start from a position similar to Europe’s before scientific take-off hundreds of years ago.”[19] The authors also argue that the concept of “colonial science”, as defined by Basalla and studied by several historians, was problematic. They stress that Basalla’s definition of “colonial science” implies that each locality develops into a scientific nation state only after going through the “colonial” stage, and ignores the social and cultural parameters that are unique to each locality. Chambers and Gillespie suggest that colonial scientific relationships must be seen as networks through which scientific knowledge was produced and circulated, instead of the linear, unidirectional model of technology transfer suggested by Basalla.[20]

In The Tentacles of Progress: Technology Transfer in the Age of Progress, 1850-1940 (1988), Daniel Headrick discusses the process of technology transfer and also argues that “the transfer of technology from one society to another, and from one civilisation to another, is of an altogether higher order of complexity, and no theory has yet emerged to encompass it all.”[21] Headrick writes that technology transfer is not a singular process, but comprises of two distinct processes: “relocation” and “diffusion.”[22] Relocation, according to Headrick, is the movement of equipment, methods and personnel from one location to another, while diffusion involves the cultural acceptance and diffusion of skills, knowledge and attitudes from one society to another.

In Headrick’s view, technology transfer is incomplete without its agents: “exporters”, “importers”, and “migrants.”[23] Exporters, which include officials, tradesmen and engineers, are responsible for the “geographic relocation of technology”, and for exporting technology and skilled personnel to fulfill gaps in the demands of the importing country.[24] On the other hand, importers, which include students, local labour and local experts, are responsible for cultural diffusion of technology, with a view to develop skills and technologies in their home countries. Migrants, according to Headrick, are both exporters and importers. Headrick adds:

Hence we are left with four basic categories of transfer: the geographic relocation of technology by Western experts; its relocation by non-Western importers; its cultural diffusion by Western experts; and its diffusion by non-Western importers.[25]

In The Tentacles of Progress, Headrick also adds that due to the complex nature of the processes of technology transfer, especially in the case of colonial India, the relocation of technology is a much easier task than the cultural diffusion of technology. While geographic relocation of technology only requires transporting technology and personnel from one location to another by means of a transportation system that links both the home and the new locations, cultural diffusion of technology involves cultural, political and economic aspects, which make it liable to facing resistance. This is because, in Headrick’s view, cultural diffusion “takes a willingness to accept changes, a strong political cohesiveness, and a common vision to the future.”[26]

Headrick argues that these cultural, political and economic aspects of diffusion of technology are responsible for why the colonised regions failed to industrialise despite large-scale technology transfer. India, in Headrick’s view, is an apt example due to its size, population, and also due to the fact that India was colonised many decades before the British ruled Africa, Malaya or Indochina. However, Imperial interests caused delays in the cultural diffusion of technology in India despite India being the forerunner in technology transfer from the West. Headrick stresses that the unequal power relationships between India (and other colonies) and the colonisers was responsible for the failure of India’s attempts to industrialise.[27] The author also demonstrates that the introduction of railways in India, usually considered by many as a means of modernisation and economic development, had a far smaller impact on India’s developments than it had in any other country. Headrick states that the British did not introduce the railways in India with a view to help economic development in India, but to meet their own political and economic goals. He states, “after all, the prime concern of British railway policy in India was to make India useful to Britain, not to make Britain useful to India.”[28] Ian Inkster also makes a similar point on the railways in his essay Colonial and Neo-Colonial Transfers of Technology (1995). Inkster argues that while the development of the railways in Japan and Europe were applications of technological knowledge, “inducing certain types of learning, attitude change and institutional reform”, the building of railways in India was, on the other hand, was not seen as the development of a technological system. British ownership and the import of materials from Britain ensured that the railways project had no significant impact on any technological systems in India.[29]

Headrick also studies indigenous experts and enterprise, especially Jamsetji Nasarwanji Tata and Pramatha Nath Bose, founders of India’s steel industry. However, according to the author, the commercial and political interests of the colonisers restricted and limited indigenous entrepreneurs.[30] Even education of the locals was restricted by the colonisers, who “educated their subjects up to a point. Beyond that they withheld the culture of technology.”[31] Deepak Kumar and Roy MacLeod, editors of Technology and the Raj: Western Technology and Technical Transfers to India (1995), also argue that British political control over agricultural and engineering projects, and education ensured that the transfer of technological knowledge and its dissemination into the local knowledge systems were almost impossible.[32] The engineering community involved in building India’s railway network was predominantly British, and only few Indian engineers reached positions where they could contribute to decision-making processes:

Colonial prejudice against the decision-making capabilities of Indians, their reliability in a crisis, and their ability to direct European and Anglo-Indian upper subordinates, was to prevent these well qualified officers from advancing further until the inter-war years, when Indianisation finally passed beyond the subaltern to the superior grades.[33]

The Tentacles of Progress, and Technology and the Raj can, however, be classified as examples of the centre/periphery concept. Studies on colonial periphery usually employ concepts that define the circulation of scientific knowledge and skills between the developed centre and the colonial periphery with terms such as “transfer”, ”spread”, “introduction”, and “adoption”.[34] The arguments made by the contributors in Technology and the Raj, and by Headrick as to why, despite extensive technology transfer, the colonies remained underdeveloped implicitly imply that the centre and the colonial periphery can be differentiated on the basis of their levels of scientific and technological advancements. These works also neglect the changes that scientific and technological ideas and techniques may have undergone as a result of being transmitted from one culture to another.

Recent historical works have, however, shown that the cultural orientations and internal dynamics of the colonial periphery are important aspects in the study of technology transfer. Kapil Raj, in his book, Relocating Modern Science: Circulation and the Construction of Knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 1650-1900 (2007), argues that the construction of scientific knowledge in the colonial periphery was a result of intercultural interactions, and not just the result of a straightforward transfer from the centre.[35] Raj argues that since South Asian and British colonial intellectuals possessed different tools and scientific knowledge, science in the colonial periphery could not have developed without fruitful scientific interactions between the two communities. Raj writes:

[S]cientific knowledge [is developed] through co-constructive processes of negotiation of skilled communities and individuals from both regions, resulting in as much in the emergence of new knowledge forms as in a reconfiguration of existing knowledges and specialized practices on both sides of the encounter.[36]

Raj’s study of interactions between European and Asians, and the way knowledge changed as a result of those interactions is in contrast with the usual centre/periphery and diffusionist models that studied the transfer of scientific and technological knowledge from the Western “metropolis” to the colonial peripheries as a result of superior knowledge. Raj stresses that although these relationships and interactions were asymmetric due to the greater economic, political and military powers of the Europeans, it did not, however, mean that the interactions were unidirectional. Raj also argues against Basalla’s technology transfer model in stating that scientific knowledge was not taken from the colonies in South Asia to the centre to be refined and reshaped before being applied in the colonies as “colonial science.” Instead, according to Raj, scientific knowledge was practiced and applied in the colonies through the cooperation between the colonisers and the colonies. This is evident in his study of geographic surveying, where local South Asian knowledge aided the English in mapping their administrative territories.[37] This, in Raj’s view, benefited both science in the colonies and in the West, thereby making the locals and the colonisers significant yet unequal partners in the creation of scientific knowledge, and “interpersonal trust between — certain — British and — certain — South Asians was predicated upon establishing their common genealogy, language, culture, and shared mercantile interests.”[38]

Kapil Raj’s Relocating Modern Science has resulted in historians questioning the term “colonial science”. By studying the contributions of individual scientific practitioners, Raj has pointed out the various complex interactions between colonisers and local experts, and the exchange of knowledge. More historical works by Kapil Raj have also revealed another aspect of cooperation and knowledge sharing between colonisers and the indigenes — the concept of “go-betweens”, or human agents who “made and changed the contents and the paths of knowledge.”[39] The go-betweens are additions to the agents of technology transfer that Headrick defined in The Tentacles of Progress — exporters, importers and migrants. Go-betweens — usually brokers, messengers, knowledge collectors and translators — were crucial for decision-making processes in politics, and for the dissemination and communication of scientific knowledge. In The Brokered World: Go-Betweens and Global Intelligence, 1770-1820 (2009), Simon Schaffer and Kapil Raj discuss the largely ignored roles of go-betweens in the transfer of scientific knowledge in colonial India. Raj identifies five types of go-betweens who helped in the development of relationships between Asia and Europe — the “interpreter-translator”, the “merchant-banker”, the “procurer”, the “attorney”, and the “knowledge broker”.[40] Schaffer studies the intellectual network between Britain and India and the role of Tafazzul Husain Khan in helping the exchange and collection of scientific knowledge. Schaffer illustrates the role that this individual go-between played, not only in translating Newton’s Principia into Arabic, but also in collecting ancient literature and enabling English, Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit scholars to share their astronomical knowledge with each other.[41]


The historical works studied here have shown how the study of the history of colonial science and technology transfer has changed with the growing importance of studying the social, cultural and local aspects of scientific knowledge, the ideas and practices of indigenous individuals, and how scientific and technical knowledge is circulated in specific local and institutional contexts.

While historical works discussed here have focused on the changing concepts of technology transfer from the West to the colonies, what is also needed is a closer examination of how indigenous scientific and technical knowledge from the colonies, especially India, resulted in the transformation of scientific and technical knowledge in the West. This would require following the steps of Chambers and Gillespie, and viewing colonial scientific relationships as multilayered and polycentric communication network, while building a history of colonial science different from that of the “diffusionist” model and the “centre/periphery” dichotomy.


[1] David Arnold (ed.). The New Cambridge History of India III: Science, Technology and Medicine in Colonial India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 9

[2] George Basalla, “The Spread of Western Science”, Science, Vol. 156 (5 May 1967), pp. 611 — 622

[3] ibid, p. 611

[4] Although Basalla’s essay was concerned with colonialism and technology transfer as a whole, it’s tenets also applied to historical scholarship on colonial science in India, a topic this essay intends to study.

[5] See: N. Despicht, “‘Centre’ and ‘periphery’ in Europe”, in J. de Bandt, P. Mandi and D. Seers (eds), European studies in development: New trends in European development studies (London, 1980), pp. 38 — 41

[6] The theme of the reactions of different segments of Indian society to the scientific and technological knowledge brought from Britain to India during the rule of the East India Company has recently begun to attract the attention of several historians in India and abroad, most notable of whom have been Irfan Habib, Dhruv Raina, Deepak Kumar and Daniel Headrick.

[7] K. Gavroglu and M. Patiniotis (, “Science and Technology in the European Periphery: Some Historiographical Reflections”, History of Science, 46: 2 (2008), pp. 153 — 176 (p.156)

[8] Basalla, The Spread of Western Science, p. 613

[9] ibid, p. 613 — 614

[10] ibid, p. 614

[11] ibid, pp. 617 — 619

[12] R.K. Kochhar, “Science in British India. I. Colonial Tool”, Current Science, 63: 11 (10 December 1992), pp. 689 — 694 (p. 689)

[13] ibid, p. 690

[14] ibid, pp. 690 — 694

[15] ibid, p. 690

[16] ibid, p. 690

[17] Roy MacLeod, “On Visiting the ‘Moving Metropolis’: Reflections on the Architecture of Imperial Science”, Historical Records of Australian Science, 5: 3 (1982), pp. 1 — 16

[18] For imperial science and scientific imperialism, and how technology helped the expansion of European control, see: Daniel Headrick, “The Tools of Imperialism: Technology and the Expansion of European Colonial Empires in the Nineteenth Century”, The Journal of Modern History, 51: 2 (June, 1979), pp. 231 — 263

[19] David Wade Chambers and Richard Gilespie, “Locality in the History of Science: Colonial Science, Technoscience, and Indigenous Knowledge”, Osiris 2nd Series, 15 (2000), pp. 221 — 240 (p.226)

[20] ibid, p. 223

[21] Daniel Headrick, The Tentacles of Progress: Technology Transfer in the Age of Imperialism, 1850 — 1940 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 9

[22] ibid, p. 9

[23] ibid, p. 10

[24] ibid, p. 10

[25] ibid, p. 10

[26] ibid, p. 13

[27] ibid, pp. 13 — 16

[28] ibid, p. 91

[29] Ian Inkster, “Colonial and Neo-Colonial Transfers of Technology: Perspectives on India before 1914”, in Technology and the Raj: Western Technology and Technical Transfers to India, ed. by Roy MacLeod and Deepak Kumar (New Delhi: Sage, 1995), pp. 25 — 51 (p. 35)

[30] Headrick, The Tentacles of Progress, pp. 259 — 303

[31] ibid, p. 345

[32] Roy MacLeod and Deepak Kumar (eds.), Technology and the Raj: Western Technology and Technical Transfers to India (New Delhi: Sage, 1995)

[33] ibid, p. 184

[34] Gavroglu and Patiniotis (, Science and Technology in the European Periphery, p. 159

[35] Kapil Raj, Relocating Modern Science: Circulation and the Construction of Knowledge in South Asia and Europe, 1650 — 1900 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)

[36] ibid, p. 223

[37] ibid, pp. 60 — 93

[38] ibid, p. 224

[39] Simon Schaffer, Lisa Roberts, Kapil Raj and James Delbourgo (eds.), The Brokered World: Go-Betweens and Global Intelligence, 1770 — 1820 (Sagamore Beach, M.A.: Science History Publications, 2009), p. x

[40] ibid, ch. 3, pp. 105 — 150

[41] ibid, ch. 2, pp. 49 — 104