Science & Technology

Fabric of the byte

The development of technology and its relations with society and culture hold contemporary lessons for India

By Dinesh C Sharma
Published: Wednesday 31 August 2016


If someone asked you to guess the year in which fax machine was invented, you would probably say sometime in 1950s or 1960s. One can expect a similar answer if the question is related to the first Indian who went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for technical education. In both the cases, the answer would be off the mark by over a century. The first patent for the fax machine was filed in 1843, while the first Indian went to the MIT in 1882. If the idea of a fax machine has been around for 150 years, why did it take such a long time to succeed?

Such questions inspire the historians of technology. History is replete with facts and nuggets, which when put together make for a bigger facinating picture. How a technology is assimilated, adopted and disseminated, or how technological skills are acquired depends on a complex interplay of multiple factors—ideas, innovation, economics, culture, regulation, leadership and politics. In the case of the fax machine, it was economics and regulation, said Jonathan Coopersmith, author of Faxed: The Rise and Fall of the Fax Machine.

Coopersmith was among several professional and amateur historians of technology who gathered in Singapore from June 22 to 26 for the annual meeting of the US-based Society for the History of Technology (SHOT), held for the first time in Asia. The subjects discussed at the meeting were diverse—from aerospace to reproduction technologies. Today, innumerable technologies or products have either become obsolete—radio pagers and cassette recorders—or, have become an inseparable part of daily life—computers and mobile phones. But their history and evolution continue to engage researchers and spur our curiosity.

For instance, the history of something as ubiquitous as electricity could hold lessons for modern India, where millions still live in darkness. Though electric power boosted industrialisation in early 20th century, economic historians have not paid much attention to history of electricity technology. “The British used electricity more for administrative and military purposes than for manufacturing, till the Indian Industrial Commission (1916–18) emphasised its use as an economic instrument,” pointed out Suvobrata Sarkar of the University of Burdwan, West Bengal. Electricity—a novelty in late 19th century Calcutta—spurred the development of local industry like Bengal Lamps and teaching of electrical engineering.

Ramesh Subramanian, a fellow at the Information Society Project of the Yale Law School, traced the beginning of cyber security in India to the enactment of the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885, which empowered the State to intercept messages. “We need to examine telecommunications in India during the colonial period, its role in the security apparatus of the British, and its refinement by the Indian government after Independence,” he added.

Aparajith Ramnath of the Indian Institute of Management, Kozhikode, explained the reasons behind the disproportionate emphasis on elite engineering education as opposed to vocational and technical education. “Key developments after the formation of the National Planning Committee in 1938 shaped the thinking on technical education, not only by nationalist politicians, but also by the British. Governments in free India created a pragmatic amalgam out of these elements, and thus emerged a dichotomous system of technical education with distinct elite and non-elite strands,” explained Ramnath.

William Logan of Auburn University, USA, used the construction of Saraighat bridge—the first permanent crossing over the Brahmaputra—as a case study to explore how the Indian government attempted to indigenise foreign industrial technologies after Independence. The double-decked bridge was constructed in less than four years—from January 1959 to October 1962—by two private firms. “Built with Indian materials, technology and skills, the Saraighat bridge is an example of the success of Indian government’s programme of attaining technological autarky in the field of bridge construction,” says Logan.

Speaking about the challenges, SHOT president, Francesca Bray, says, “As historians of technology, we attempt to recover the technological landscapes and technological cultures of the past. In order to make sense of a society’s characteristic ideas about the forces mobilised by technological activities of various kinds, we need to work reflexively and symmetrically, translating the past into terms intelligible in the present while interrogating the present in the light of the past.”

'The first Indian went to MIT in 1882'
ROSS BASSETT, a computer engineer who became a historian of technology, has spent over a decade writing about Indians who studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He recently published a book based on his research, The Technological Indian. Excerpts from an interview

On the genesis of the project:

From the beginning, I had a keen interest in India. I had many Indian friends in my undergraduate engineering class from whom I learnt about IITs and wanted to work in this area. Then I found that the MIT had alumni database which had a number of Indians. I was curious to know more about such people. One would have thought such Indians would be mostly from the IIT era, but I was surprised to find that Indians were studying at the MIT much before. The first Indian went to MIT in 1882. About 1,300 Indians have graduated from MIT till 2000. I could track and interview about 200 prominent among them.

On why Indians went to MIT:

It had a lot to do with technological nationalism in the beginning. Many Indians thought the country needed industry, and technical education could help. Several of those who went to MIT were from business families which wanted to transform their businesses. S L Kirloskar and Ravi Kirloskar, Adi and Nadar Godrej, Kasturbhai Lalbhai and Aditya Birla went to MIT for advanced technical education. There were others like M N Dastur, who founded a company which designed steel mills.

On MIT Indians' contribution to the IT industry:

The impact of MIT education on the IT industry is more visible. Like Naren Patni, who launched Patni Computers. It is interesting to note that many Indians got into computer engineering not because they wanted to do so, but because MIT—as a leading centre for computer education in the 1960s—offered scholarships. Lalit Kanodia, Nitin Patel and Ashok Malhotra, who started TCS, studied at the MIT. When the US changed its immigration laws in 1965, many stayed back in the country and founded companies in the Silicon Valley, like Suhas Patel who founded Cirrus Logic.

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