The First Indian Engineer

Path breaking inventions in any country were the priviledge of ametuer apprentices rather than artisans who followed the profession traditionally and carried forward the technology mechanically.

 — Shankar Abaji Bhise

How should I justify title of this blog when every Indian is a born engineers. Go to any Village, you’ll see them inventing ingenious solutions to their problems all the time. This discipline, known as jugaad (makeshift) is a way too Indian. Finding first engineer among them, even if we consider only recorded history, would be way too hard. Thats when we are not considering history as told in Ramanyan which runs in eons.  Here, we are concerned with innovators with a knowledge of modern theories. I am not claiming that even among them there was no one before him who was not worthy of this title. Possibly some other person  from first Indian engineering college i.e.  College of Engineering Guindy or from the second one i.e. Roorkee College (now IIT Roorkee) could have been well qualified. But history is blind beyond the available knowledge of the gone days. Till some historian dig up something about others, I have to contend myself with this option.

In most of the countries, tough and tumultuous times are known to produce great thinker, sane activists, remarkable leaders and wonderful writers. In peaceful times, we see scientists and scholars flourishing. India, being an unnatural nation, defies that logic also. When we saw Gandhi, Nehru, Ambedkar, Lohia, Patel etc, we also had Ramanujan, Bose, Raman at the same time. It seems like that in India, most of the great things happen simultaneously. We also have witnessed all the revolutions starting at the same time, the birth of India (national revolution), democracy and social revolution, urbanization and industrialization. Juxtapose it with U.S., ‘which proclaimed its national independence in 18th century, urbanized and industrialized in 19th century, and became democratic only in 20th century‘[1].

Ok, question! This Indian engineer, though working mainly in the USA, won 40 patents in printing technology. He made so many other inventions in different fields that American technologists often referred to him as ‘Indian Edison’? Our man here, Shankar Abaji Bhisey. He himself cherished Edison and considered him his role model. Still I love to see him as more of an Engineer than an Edison. Though his inventions were important and numerous but not as of Edison. Neither his life was as impressive as of Edison. But no doubt, he was altogether a different breed of Indian – the bold one. When he wanted to enroll in the college of Science in Poona, his father disapproved. He decided to finance his own scientific ventures and sought a job in Accounts General office’s at Bombay from 1888 to 1897 [2].

His life becomes more remarkable since those days, neither we had the tradition of producing engineers nor we had the history of them. Philosophers, thinkers, writers, artists were abundant in his time. A tribe of scientists was increasing, both in their influence and numbers. Yet, he chose building up stuff and influenced next generation of Maharashtrian scientists, most notably V R Kokatnur. ibid.

He is mostly known for his invention in printing technology, Bhiso-type, a typecaster referred to as spacotype by some western journal. Abhidha Dumatkar, a historian at Sathya College has done a remarkable job in cataloging his life and innovations, published in EPW. It is the first time perhaps that anything about him so concrete came out in English. His invention were numerous and diverse. Consider the list – automatic weighing, delivering and registering machine for railways, automatic bicycle stand and lock, Vertolite sign lamp, a washing compound named Shella, Baseline – a drug which cure malaria, auto toilet flusher (Thankfully no one sponsered it which could have caused water shortage problems). He was also much interested in mind-reading, mediation, astrology and palmistry. It is claimed in [2] that he has predicted the rise of Mahatma Gandhi and Indian liberation out of his dream. He also wrote some plays and drama.

His life also sheds light on the development of science and technology in Mumbai. Possibly, he and Tatas were India’s first ever syndicate between an Engineer and a corporate house in India. Tata Bhisey Invention Syndicate at London became a proud and significant Indian achievement which employed many Europeans. After cracks started appearing between Tata’s and Bhisey, he moved to U.S. permanently and got rid of Mechanical inventions which used to cost him a lot of money, he turned to pharmacology.

Dadabhai Naoriji, who was also the first significant patron of cricket in Bombay, helped and nourished Bhise in his early days. Its a pity that Naoriji could not find a place in Guha’s ‘Makers of Modern India’. His early research ventures were financed by Naoriji. He also offered Bhise some monthly allowance. Nothing much is known about their relationships. If some of it exists, it should be in some Marathi newspapers of olden days. May be some Marathi Historian will like to shed some light on this in English as Dumatkar did in [2].

Now Bombay, started quite nicely in the field of Science, is not at the center of technology and science. Its place, justifiably, has been taken by Bangalore. Even Chennai seems to outperform it. Only TIFR, TISS and IIT Bombay are the Institutes left with some caliber due to their isolation from outside influence. From the establishment of VJTI by Naoriji, Pherozeshah Mehta, M G Ranade and K T Telag, and the growth of TIFR led by Tatas, Mumbai University and VJTI will possibly be among the sadest chapters in the history of modern Maharashtra. Even in these modern times, TIFR was also forced to locate two of its very prominent center to Bangalore due to coldness of Mumbai government towards granting some lands to it – ironically this also did not make any news in Marathi media. Mumbai, no longer holds sway in cricket after 1990’s. Except for Sachin Tendulkar, there is not a single worthy player who can find a place in Indian Eleven. It’d be a pity, if this once a great city where modern trade and  cricket originated, and science and technology were groomed, which once produced Bhise and Kokatnur, will be allowed to ruined by super-fascist of money and politics.

[1] Makers of Modern India, Ramahcandra Guha, pp 5.
[2] The Indian Edison, Abhidha Dhumatkar, EPW Oct 16, 2010

EDIT : In the previous version of this blog, Sir Visvesvaraya was linked with Roorkee Engineering college. It has been corrected/removed now. (see comment 1).



Author: Dilawar

Graduate Student at National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore.

4 thoughts on “The First Indian Engineer”

  1. It probably looks like you take a disparaging stance on one of the builders of modern Mysore. The one whom you callously refer to as some dead guy (Sir. M. Visvesvaraya) is actually from College of Engineering Pune. Please do read up about this great man. With all due respect to the Bhise, I think Sir. M.V. is a man worthy of remembrance and emulation for not only his engineering prowess but also for his able administration as Diwan.

  2. Dear Dilawar Sir, I am very much pleased that you have started this blog & informed us about Mr. Bhisey in detail!I had heard about him but not to that extent!Thakn you again

  3. Thank you for writing a blog about Shankar-abaji-bhise, He happens to be my great grandfather.

    Well written :)

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