What do you call a ghost that haunts a chemistry lab?

A methylated spirit.

Ardaseer Cursetjee Wadia

Last week we learned about the Royal Society. Ardaseer Cursetjee Wadia was mentioned in it as the first Indian FRS. Let's get to know him better.

A clash of civilisations

When the British Raj came to India, there were many differences in the two cultures. Britain was in the midst of the Enlightenment, when many scientific advances were taking places. India was in political turmoil, split into various states.

While most Indians were hostile to learning the Western advances to science, a few courageously adopted them. They became the bridges between Indian and Western culture, and slowly but surely, brought many technical advances to India. The renaissance of science in India owes much to these pioneers.

The Advent of Ardaseer

Ardaseer Cursetjee Wadia was one of the earliest Indians to take to Western science. He was born on 6th October, 1808. He went to work in the family dockyard at Mazagaon at the age of 14. The Wadia family had distinguished themselves as master builders of sailing ships, but were facing a challenge at this point of time. Ships were changing over from wind to steam as the source of power.

Fortunately for the Wadias, Ardaseer was more interested in steam engines than ships. The East India Company agreed to sponsor his training in steam engineering and metallurgy at the Bombay Mint in 1831. As proof of how quickly he learned, within a year he built his own-steam engine from scratch and used it to operate a pump.

In August 1833, Ardaseer obtained a 10 BHP steam engine from Britain, and used it to build a steamship, the SS Indus. To recognise this achievement, you need to understand that other British technologies were yet to come to India. Railways and cotton mills would come only in 1854, the telegraph in 1870.

Later life and career

Ardaseer maintained a great interest in science throughout his life. In 1834, he introduced gas lighting to Bombay. He was appointed as a demonstrator in 'mechanical and chemical science' at the Elphinstone Institution.

In 1839, he went on a one-year study tour to England, where he met many eminent British scientists, and even Queen Victoria. From 1840 to 1857, he held the post of Chief Engineer of the Bombay Steam Factory and Foundry, the first Indian to attain such a high position, supervising over a hundred English engineers! In 1841, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London.

He continued to build steamships, with his masterpiece, the SS Lowjee Family, an 80-tonne giant launched in 1851. He imported nothing; every part of the ship was manufactured at his own foundry. The same year, he also visited Britain and America, from where he brought back a number of useful technologies. He died on 16 November, 1877.

Ardaseer Cursetjee Wadia was the first to introduce the sewing machine, photography and electroplating to India. So when you photograph yourself in your best clothes next, remember the man who brought it all to us!

This article was adapted from a biography in the Notes and Records of the Royal Society.


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