Illuminating the Story of Indian Science

The '5000 Years of Indian Innovation' exhibition at London's Science Museum uses artifacts to tell the stories of the science of the subcontinent, from the ancient cities of the Indus Valley civilization through to the achievements of today’s Indian space program.


Who invented the wireless radio? The development is commonly attributed to the Italian engineer Guglielmo Marconi, who made the first transatlantic radio transmission in 1901. However, it was actually a Bengali scientist, Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, who invented the receiving device (a mercury autocoherer) that made Marconi’s transmission possible.

Bose first announced the development in 1899, two years before Marconi‘s demonstration. But while Marconi patented his invention, Bose — a man of science rather than commerce — refused to, instead making his findings public so that others might learn from and develop his ideas. Today, though rarely remembered as the inventor of the wireless radio, Bose is recognized as one of the fathers of radio science, whose research paved the way for a breakthrough that would fundamentally change the way we communicate.

Illuminating India

Bose is just one of the Indian innovators who have played a pivotal role in the history of scientific discovery. Now, a new exhibition at London’s Science Museum is celebrating some of these great minds and the impact they have had on the world. 5000 Years of Indian Innovation uses artifacts to tell the stories of the science of the subcontinent, from the ancient cities of the Indus Valley civilization through to the achievements of today’s Indian space program.

Illuminating India 5000 Years of Science and Innovation. Photo: Science Museum

In doing so, 5000 Years of Innovation aims to give visitors a better understanding of India’s role in the shared global history of science. “Throughout the exhibition visitors will encounter objects, ideas and people who have shaped the history of science and technology yet rarely received the credit that their Western counterparts have,” says curator Matt Kimberley. “The exhibition very much sets out to challenge some of the assumptions of traditional narratives about science and technology that focus on Europe and North America from the Enlightenment onwards.”

5000 Years of Innovation opens at a particularly interesting time for science in India. Over the past two years academics have criticized the Indian government for being “anti-science” for underfunding research, and in August this year thousands marched in protest in cities across the country. At the same time, many of the leading figures in the tech industry today are Indian-born and educated, and the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is emerging as a serious player in the race to commercialize space travel.

The exhibits on display here chart the history of India’s contribution to scientific discovery, but they may well help start a timely conversation around what the next 5,000 years of innovation might bring.

Conceiving of the Void

One of the highlights of the exhibition is a small fragment of an ancient Indian text known as the Bakhshali Manuscript. This unassuming scrap of birch bark represents one of the most significant discoveries in the history of mathematics: the earliest written record of the zero symbol that we use today.

It may mean “nothing,” but the importance of this small black dot should not be underestimated. The use of zero as a placeholder (e.g. to mean that one has no tens in the number 203) completely revolutionised mathematics and made possible the calculations that our modern world and its digital technologies rely on.

The mathematical revolution that changed the way we think logically about the world originated in India around the 3rd or 4th century. “This is coming out of a culture that is quite happy to conceive of the void, to conceive of the infinite,” says Marcus du Sautoy, professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford. “That is exciting to recognize, that culture is important in making big mathematical breakthroughs.”

A Uniquely Indian Approach

If 5000 Years of Innovation tells us anything, it’s that the culture of a place can have a marked impact on breakthroughs in all fields of science and technology. The exhibition is most successful when it explores the way that Indian innovations have been (and continue to be) shaped by the unique history of the nation and the challenges faced by its population of over 1.3 billion people, all trying to live and work together.

Jaipur foot prosthesis. Photo: Science Museum

Kimberley cites the example of an innovation that is part of everyday life for hundreds of thousands of Mumbaikars. “I think the dabba, or tiffin tin, lunch delivery network is a fantastic testament to how innovation need not always focus on the material technological aspects,” he says. “Each day, the dabba service delivers some 200,000 hot lunches across Mumbai. While in Western nations this service would involve the development of an expensive and complex IT system and infrastructure, the dabba service is achieved with a simple letter, number and color coding system marked on the tins. The error rate is an estimated one in 6 million, a result so astonishing the service has been the subject of extensive studies by both the Indian Institute of Management and Harvard Business School.”

One theme that runs through many of the exhibits is that of jugaad, or low-cost innovation. “The concept of jugaad has certainly played an important role in technological research and development in India, particularly in recent decades,” says Kimberley. “What I think is most impressive today is that this Indian concept is one that is being embraced the world over by entrepreneurs, and Indian innovators are being recognized as paving theway here.”

T his tendency to find intelligent, affordable solutions to problems is reflected in the technologies of Micromax, a company that has helped to democratize mobile communications in India with its low-cost smartphone; affordable medical technologies, such as the Jaipur Foot, a flexible prosthetic limb for amputees; and, of course, the work of ISRO.

“ISRO is the world’s first space agency to reach Mars orbit on the first attempt, and they did it for around £50 million. This is a lot less than the budget of the average Hollywood blockbuster movie!” says Kimberley. “I think it speaks to the power of the principle of jugaad to change our ways of working, not just at the human scale in day to day life, but in our interplanetary ambitions.”

Five Millennia of Science

NovaSAR in build at Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. © SSTL Photo: Science Museum

5000 Years of Innovation is vast in scope, but small in size. It would be difficult for any exhibition occupying just one gallery to satisfactorily cover a 5,000-year history, and these displays are only able to scratch the surface of some subjects — there are just six exhibits on medical innovation, for example.

It is an ambitious task to distil and showcase five millennia of scientific advancement, but 5000 Years offers many glimpses into the fascinating stories of Indian discovery. Compact it may be, but with this exhibition the museum is helping to rewrite the dominant Western-centric narratives around science and technology by revealing how Indian innovation has shaped all our lives.

The exhibition 5000 Years of Innovation is part of the museum’s Illuminating India season, which features two special exhibitions, 5000 Years of Innovation and Photography 1857–2017, as well as a programme of events exploring the country’s contributions to science, technology and thought. The exhibition runs from 4 October 2017 to 31 March 2018.


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