Across the oceans, on the western shore,

Reigns the temple of the Goddess

Of wealth of science.

There you journeyed, my friend,

And returned richly crowned.

You anointed the motherland,

Modest at hear, poor and shy.

 The great and the glorified

Of those far off lands

Assembled and acclaimed

Your work in unison,

The words resounding their message,

Far and wide, the seas beyond.

 Her eyes welled up in tears,

Mother sends you the blessings

Of her humbled hear,

Through a poet of whom

The world of science has never heard.

Only in the inner self of yours,

Will these words echo

As gentle murmurs of

Mother’s whispered tones.

Rabindranath Tagore’s beautiful verses here were for one man he held highly – Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, the unsung legend when it comes to radio waves and radio communication. Lord Kelvin once wrote to Bose saying that he “was literally filled with wonder and admiration: allow me to ask you to accept my congratulations for so much success in the difficult and novel experimental problems which you have attacked“. His work was so significant that it (literally, and recently) made an impact, so to say, on the moon too in the form of an impact crater named after him!

So who was Jagdish Chandra Bose and what did he do that enthralled so many luminaries and common-folk, alike?

Jagadish Chandra Bose was born on 30 November 1858 at Mymensingh (present day Bangladesh). He received his elementary education from a vernacular school since his father thought that Bose should learn his own mother tongue, Bengali, first. It was from this stage itself that his education left a deep imprint on Jagadish, be it to do with the workings of nature or the concept of discrimination (or the lack thereof, also due to the influence of his mother) in society. The curiosity of a child coupled with the amazement at the way in which nature and universe functioned and evolved and behaved made this learning experience a fascinating one for young Jagadish! Bose recounted, in the Bikrampur Conference in 1915,

I listened spellbound to their stories of birds, animals and aquatic creatures. Perhaps these stories created in my mind a keen interest in investigating the workings of Nature.

It is interesting to note how the drive for a vernacular education by his father led young Jagadish to enter a realm so intriguing and beautiful that it shaped the trajectory of his life! His father played a big role in his life. Initially wanting to pursue the civil services in England, Jagadish’s father advised against it, saying that his son would rule nobody but himself, and encouraged him to become a scholar. This is what made Bose pursue a bachelor’s degree in Cambridge University, affiliated to Christ’s College, after studying physics at Presidency College (Calcutta University). Bose’s time at Cambridge must have been quite a ride, having been taught by giants such as Lord Rayleigh (often called the ‘Father of modern acoustics’ and Nobel Laureate in Physics 1904), Sir James Dewar (inventor of the vacuum flask) and Francis Darwin (son of Charles Darwin)! It was at this time that he got interested in the study of acoustics, optics and radio waves. Clerk Maxwell and Heinrich Hertz had worked on electromagnetism and radio waves previously but the experimental work on the same had still not been conducted conclusively. It was the book containing British physicist Oliver Lodge’s work on the quasi-optical nature of “Hertzian waves” (radio waves) and his demonstration of their similarity to light that caught Jagadish Bose’s eyes, back in India, and spurred him to take this up. During the mid-1890s, Bose demonstrated the properties of radio waves in public demonstrations in Kolkata. He ignited gunpowder from a distance and also rang a bell from afar using millimetre-range wavelength microwaves.  In his Bengali essay, Adrisya Alok (Invisible Light), Jagadish Bose wrote

The invisible light can easily pass through brick walls, buildings etc. Therefore, messages can be transmitted by means of it without the mediation of wires.

This must have been a fascinating discovery and demonstration for the people of Kolkata and the scientific community of that age! Word soon reached around the world. The London journal Electrician (Vol. 36) published Bose’s paper, “On a new electro-polariscope” in December 1895. The Englishman, published on 18 January 1896, quoted from this journal and said the following:

Should Professor Bose succeed in perfecting and patenting his ‘Coherer’, we may in time see the whole system of coast lighting throughout the navigable world revolutionised by a Bengali scientist working single handed in our Presidency College Laboratory.

The crucial error Jagadish Bose made here was that he regarded the perfection of his invention to be more important than patenting it.


Figure: Schematic of Bose’s device

It was Jagadish Bose who invented the Mercury Coherer (together with the telephone receiver) used by Guglielmo Marconi to receive the radio signal in his first transatlantic radio communication. It was Jagadish Bose who experimentally saw the power of radio waves and showed it to the world. It was Jagadish Bose who worked towards confining the waves to about 5mm to study them and developing the use of galena (Lead Sulfide) crystals contacted by a metal point for detecting millimeter electromagnetic waves (in the first device to use a semiconductor junction to detect radio waves). And yet, today, Marconi is celebrated worldwide for this achievement in radio waves and was also awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics for the same, but the fact that the radio-wave receiver used for his experiments was invented by Bose is often overlooked!


Figure: Bose’s 60-GHz microwave apparatus at the Bose Institute in Kolkata, India

Thankfully, for his pioneering work in quasi-optic millimeter wave research, IEEE has called Jagadish Bose the father of radio science and according to a 1997 Microwave Symposium Digest publication, says that

He developed an elegant millimeter wave spark transmitter, self recovering coherer detector, wire grid polarizer, cylindrical diffraction grating, dielectric lens and prism, rectangular waveguide, horn antenna and microwave absorber, for the studies of reflection, refraction, absorption and polarization of millimeter waves and its application to wireless remote control for firing a gun.”

They say that Jagadish Bose was so far ahead of his time that even the famous Cavendish physicist Sir Nevill Mott (Nobel Laureate in Physics, 1977) said

J.C. Bose was at least 60 years ahead of his time. In fact, he had anticipated the existence of P-type and N-type semiconductors.

However, even with all his brilliance and achievements, Jagadish Bose still faced a lot of discrimination. In British India, he is said to have got a small fraction of the salary his English colleagues at Presidency College Calcutta received. Bose, in a fiery display of protest, is said to have declined this pay until this policy was corrected. His proposed paper publications in journals were blocked and there was an absence of facilities for his research. It was at this time that three people played a major role in spurring Jagadish Bose on, even in the face of such dire circumstances: Swami Vivekananda, Sister Nivedita and Rabindranath Tagore.


Figure: Sir JC Bose at the Royal Society, London

Jagadish Bose first met Swami Vivekananda and Sister Nivedita in Paris in 1899 when he is said to have made a considerable impression in the international scientific fraternity with his findings. In 1900, he stayed with Sister Nivedita and her family in their home at Wimbledon in 1900 and spent a month recuperating from an illness. From then onwards, till her death in 1911, Sister Nivedita graciously organised the resources Bose required for his research, chiefly through gifts and donations from Sara Chapman Bull, who was the wife of the Norwegian violin maestro Ole Bull and a devoted disciple of Swami Vivekananda. Even though Sister Nivedita was nine years younger than Jagadish Bose, she felt a maternal protectiveness for him and even referred to him as ‘bairn’ or child! Sister Nivedita was fascinated by the theme of his work since she saw a Vedantic angle to it, in the idea of ‘oneness of the entire existence’. When she saw the discrimination Jagadish Bose faced in publishing his research in western academic journals, she encouraged him to publish them as books. Sister Nivedita helped him write four books – Living and Non-LivingPlant ResponseComparative Electro-Physiology and Irritability of Plants, editing the books without claiming any credit for the same. She revised his papers published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society and continuously wrote about him in journals and newspapers to attract wider attention to his talent and tenacity. Sister Nivedita always sought to have a high-class research institute in India and during the inauguration of the Bose Institute (Basu Vigyan Mandir) in 1917, six years after Sister Nivedita had passed away, Jagadish Bose emotionally said

In all my struggling efforts, I have not been altogether solitary. While the world doubted, there have been a few, now in the city of silence, who never wavered in their trust.

In one of his letters he also wrote

Sister Nivedita was also greatly interested in the revival of all intellectual advances made by India, and it was her strong belief in the advance of Modern Science accomplished by Indian Men of Science that led me to found my Research Institute.

As per his correspondence with her younger sister, he is said to have told her that Sister Nivedita was all mind and not body. Even Rabindranath Tagore spoke of Sister Nivedita’s contribution to Jagadish Bose’s research in 1937, after his passing away:

In the days of his struggles, Jagadish gained an invaluable energiser and helper in Sister Nivedita and in any record of his life’s work, her name must be given a place of honour.

Tagore was the other major figure who was instrumental in shaping the trajectory Jagadish Bose took. It was when he was in England that Jagadish Bose realised that he was up against an entire establishment that was seeking to crush his advancement and spirit. In a letter that Bose wrote in 1902 from London, to Rabindranath Tagore, he says

You will not know what difficulties I have to face. You cannot imagine. The publication of my article on ‘Plant Response’, which I wrote in last May in the Royal Society, was stopped by the conspiracy of Waller and Sanderson. But my discoveries have been published by Waller in his own name in a journal last November. All these days I did not know about it.…..I am depressed. I wish to return now and regain the spirit of life by touching the dust of Bharata.

It was around this time that Bose also started working on a number of experiments with plants. He demonstrated that plants are also sensitive to heat, cold, light, noise and various other external stimuli. Bose contrived a very sophisticated instrument called Crescograph which could record and observe the minute responses because of external stimulants. He pursued research to draw a link between the animate and the inanimate in their responses to electric stimulus, and wrote his seminal book, Responses in the Living and Non-living in 1902. The central hall of the Royal Society in London was were one of the most famous demonstrations by Bose were carried out, in front of an audience of eminent scientists on May 10, 1901. Bose chose a plant that was cautiously dipped up to its stem in a vessel holding a bromide solution. He plugged in the instrument with the plant and viewed the lighted spot on a screen showing the movements of the plant, as its pulse beat, and the spot began to and fro movement like a pendulum. Within minutes, the spot vibrated in a violent manner and finally came to an abrupt stop. The whole thing was almost like a poisoned rat fighting against death. The plant had died due to the exposure to the poisonous bromide solution. Using the Crescograph, Bose further researched the response of the plants to fertilizers, light rays and wireless waves. The instrument received widespread acclaim, particularly from the Path Congress of Science.

It is up for discussion whether Jagadish Bose embarked upon this due to the influence of Swami Vivekananda and Sister Nivedita, but as Tagore once said, in Bose’s work lay `an essence of Indian scientific spirit, a reflection of Indian national culture, its national pride and heritage’. One interesting side of Jagadish Bose that is often overlooked was that he was also a poet and a dreamer, which was keenly observed by Tagore. Tagore found Jagadish Chandra to be endowed with a rare faculty of poetic sensibility and imagination. Tagore writes:

… to my mind he appeared to be the poet of the world of facts that waited to be proved by the scientist for their final triumph … in the prime of my youth I was strongly attracted by the personality of this remarkable man and found his mind sensitively alert in the poetical atmosphere of enjoyment which belonged to me”. (Rabindranath Tagore, “Jagadish Chandra Bose”, in The English Writings of  Rabindranath Tagore, ed. Sisir Kumar Das. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 1966, Vol. III: 826-829, p. 826)

Bose strived to work towards a unification of ideas and thoughts, which had historically represented disparate cultures and civilizations. In his presidential address at the Bengal Literary Conference in 1911, Bose suggested:

You are aware that, in the West, the prevailing tendency at the moment is, after a period of synthesis, to return upon the excessive sub-division of learning … Such a caste-system in scholarship, undoubtedly helps at first, in the gathering and classification of new material. But if followed too exclusively, it ends by limiting the comprehensiveness of truth. The search is endless. Realization evades us.

The Eastern aim has been rather the opposite, namely that, in the multiplicity of phenomena, we should never miss their underlying unity. After generations of this quest, the idea of unity comes to us almost spontaneously, and we apprehend no insuperable obstacle in grasping it.

It is with this lofty formulation of knowledge and truth that I would like to remember Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose today, as a pioneer of the synthesis of eastern and western thought, as a wizard of science and spirituality alike, as the son of Bharat and Dharma who worked to translate some core ideas of his people into scientific thought and formalism, and it is a privilege that I was part of the same college he went to, in Cambridge, where he today has a statue within the college: an honour only shared by Charles Darwin himself!

He truly was a Jagadish (a god, in a manner of speaking) among the polymaths and shall always be a gem of India, for times to come!