Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, a Renaissance polymath of India, remained an enigma during his lifetime as very few people could fathom the depth of his inquisitive-cum-inventive bent of mind. A humble tribute on his 164th birth anniversary
By Prasanta Paul
The tale of Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, a little-known boy of Mymensingh of Bangladesh (the then East Bengal), who cobbled his way up the ladder to become a Renaissance polymath of India and beyond, is worth a reel story.
But thanks to the present tradition of decadence, there is hardly any probing mind as well as film entrepreneur to turn his magnificent achievement and life story into reel.
It is only but natural that the legacy of Bose and his eminent struggle to break pioneering grounds in science would continue to elude the mass in India, except a handful of researchers in Bose Institute and some of his devotees in the parlour of literature and science.
Literature! Because, he penned quite a number of interesting short stories that are bound to stir up young minds.
His 164th birth anniversary has quietly passed away last week. And I am suddenly reminded of the Turkish astronomer in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. In the story, the astronomer is said to have discovered the asteroid which is believed to be the origin of the little prince.
While presenting this to the International Astronomical Congress, the Turkish astronomer clothes his discovery in Turkish costume in order to blur his findings.
Why so ? Bose, like the astronomer, waged a silent battle against the so-called Western think-tanks in scientific discovery with regard to his fundamental theories on radio waves.
His fault was that he was born in India and declined to make himself a party to the typical publicity mongers of the time. Although he came to England in the 1880s to study at University College, London, and Christ’s College, Cambridge, he failed to complete his studies.
After his return to Calcutta in 1885, he was appointed Professor of Physics at Presidency College where he had to fight hard in vain to restore parity in salary with his British counterparts.
In fact, he was not provided with funds to purchase equipment to set up his own laboratory for conducting experiments in the College.
Notwithstanding these hurdles, his dogged determination saw him improvising a room in his house into a laboratory where he kept on conducting experiments in silence and away from the glare of the so-called publicity mongers.
It was not before several years that the authorities could gauge the potential in him and condescended to allocate a 24 sq ft room in the Presidency College for setting up the laboratory.
Since Bose led a very frugal life, he had little problem in dedicating a lion’s share of his salary in building his own laboratory with rudimentary equipment.
Through dedicated research over the years, he was almost on the verge of inventing the radio; but unfortunately, the credit was literally snatched away from him by a pair of contemporary scientists – Guglielmo Marconi and Karl Ferdinand Braun.
The pair was alleged to have resorted to plagiarism in a subtle manner which finally brought them the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1909.
Sadly enough, neither Marconi nor Braun had ever made any mention of Bose in their Nobel Lectures.
What is really shocking is the fact that Bose had categorically mentioned about his invention of a specific “Mercury Coherer” at least 21 months before Marconi’s presentation.
And this “coherer” was nothing but a crucial component for wireless telegraphy. However, Bose being Bose, he never bothered to patent his invention.
In sharp contrast, he openly displayed the construction and workings of an earlier version of his coherer during his famous deliberations at the Royal Institution, England during his deliberations at the prestigious Friday Evening Discourse on 29 January 1897.
Bose’s discourse elicited rave reviews in many journals including The Electric Engineer . It noted with “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”.
Patrick Geddes, biographer of Bose and one of his contemporaries, highlighted this Indian scientist’s non-chalance to money-minting bent of mind; unlike Marconi and the ilk though.
He wrote and I quote “Bose was criticised as unpractical for making no profit from his inventions; but it fits both his character and his conviction to seek no personal advantage or gain from his inventions”.
Even after this, Marconi was without scruples; he again resorted to almost copying Bose’s improved version of the coherer in order to demonstrate receiving the first transatlantic wireless signal on December 12, 1901.
And then of course, Marconi went on to apply for a British patent on the device that was obviously not his and quite expectedly, he chose not to even mention Bose in the paper.
Later, during a lecture delivered at the Royal Institution on June 13,1902, Marconi astonishingly stooped low while presenting the so-called invention which he claimed “His”!
“By the time Marconi gave his lecture at the Royal Institution, he was already under attack by his own countryman” writes Probir K Bondyopadhyay.
“…. Marconi, through his careful choice of words, caused deliberated confusions and, using clear diversionary tactics, shifted attention to works of Hughes, who was already dead at that time.”
It is a matter of infinite regret that it took almost a century to fathom the true origins of the device which gifted us wireless telegraphy and the radio and give due credit to Bose, the original inventor of the device from India.
It was because the article of Bondyopadhyay was published in 1998.
The title ‘Acharya’ was conferred to him much later though. Can we say ‘Better late than never’ ?
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The author has served no less than Al Jazeera and German TV, and India’s Parliamentarian magazine among others! To his credit goes a deep-rooted empathy for social issues and humans. He has wide experience in covering the northeast of India. His coverage on the 2020 Amphan cyclone in eastern India has easily been the best around the world