[Jagadish Bose’s]... first public appearance after arriving in England was in Liverpool on 21 September 1896. The occasion was a conference of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The speaker was a curiosity to the attendees – he was the first Indian to speak before a learned European audience on scientific advances and the hall was full.

The demonstration of the properties of the electrical waves with his tabletop compact equipment created a tremendous impact. His presentation was titled “Complete Apparatus for Studying the Properties of Electric Waves”, and after he finished, the hall echoed with the sound of loud applause.

Lord Kelvin was so overcome with admiration that he limped upstairs to the gallery, leaning on his walking stick, and shook Abala’s hands, congratulating her on her husband’s achievements.

A special correspondent of the Daily Chronicle, London, interviewed Bose and wrote on 28 November 1896:

The inventor has transmitted signals to a distance of nearly a mile and herein lies the first and obvious and exceedingly valuable application of this new theoretical marvel. It is telegraphy without any kind of intervening conductor...If all this be true the great problem of transmitting signals from ship to ship or lighthouse to ship through a fog, has been solved and this alone will be a priceless benefit to the human race.

It is apparent that the correspondent had learnt about crossing this “milestone” from Bose himself, during the interview. As mentioned earlier, Bose often sent signals to his home from the college over “a distance of nearly a mile”.

About this, [Bose’s biographer Patrick] Geddes writes, “Our inventor not only went on signalling through the college but planned to fix one of these poles on the roof of his house and the other on the Presidency College one mile away; but he left for England before effecting this.”

Geddes was writing Bose’s biography twenty-five years after this event, and his only source of information was Bose himself. Obviously, there was a memory lapse or misunderstanding on Geddes’s part. In reality, Bose had already achieved this feat and been planning a public demonstration of this achievement, but could not arrange the event because he had to leave for England.

What is noteworthy in the quote is the use of the phrase “one of these poles”. It is obvious that Geddes used the term “pole” to mean the elevated aerial.

After the great success of his Liverpool lecture, Bose was invited to deliver a Friday Evening Discourse at the Royal Institution, London. Here it is necessary to point out that in the scientific community in Britain, there was no honour greater than an invitation to lecture at the Royal Institution.

It had a reputation for providing a platform for the presentation of new and impactful scientific investigations. Though lectures were held throughout the week, the Friday Evening Discourses were a hallowed series known for their quality and prestige, wherein the lecturer would enter the historic hall and begin his discourse without an introduction, for it is assumed that he is too well known to need one.

He does not address the president or the audience, since it is assumed that his message is not for a particular assemblage, but for the whole world. So, he has to begin abruptly and this custom at first appears jarring to a newcomer.

This invitation so impressed the India Office that they extended Bose’s deputation by three months. His presentation at the Royal Institution on 29 January 1897, “The Polarisation of the Electric Ray”, was as well received as his lecture in Liverpool. An excerpt from his paper reads:

The parallel pencil of electric radiation, used in many of the experiments to be described below, is only about 1 cm in diameter. The production of such a narrow pencil became absolutely necessary for a certain class of investigations. Merely qualitative results for reflection and refraction may no doubt be obtained with gigantic mirrors or prisms, but when we come to study the phenomena of polarisation as exhibited by crystals, Nature imposes a limit, and this limitation of the size of the crystals has to be accepted in conducting any investigation on their polarising properties.

Bose succeeded in polarising electric waves by passing them through crystals in order to establish complete similarity with the process of polarisation of light; it should be recalled that Hertz had polarised electric waves by passing them through a grid of parallel bars, though light could never be polarised by this method. Reporting on this, The Electric Engineer wrote about his “coherer” expressing “surprise that no secret was 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.”

We have already spoken about Bose’s distaste for patents. Sometime before this trip to England, he and his wife had resolved to set up a research institute in Calcutta, dedicated to research, where Indian scientists would get an opportunity to work in peace, unhindered by racial discrimination.

Years later, in 1917, he succeeded in founding this institute and said at its inauguration:

Through regular publication of the Transactions of the Institute these Indian contributions will reach the whole world. The discoveries made will thus become public property. No patents will ever be taken. The spirit of our national culture demands that we should forever be free from the desecration of utilising knowledge for personal gain.

It seems that this was a matter of faith for him. Knowledge was sacred and a patent, which is necessarily for personal gain, desecrates knowledge. He weakened only once on this principle and very quickly restored himself thereafter; but that moment of weakness turned out to be historic.

After the Friday Evening Discourse at the Royal Institution, the Times paid a different kind of tribute by commenting on his work environment:

The originality of the achievement is enhanced by the fact that Dr Bose had to do the work in addition to his incessant duties as Professor of Physical Science in Calcutta, and with apparatus and appliances which in this country would be deemed altogether inadequate. He had to construct himself his instruments as he went along. His work forms the outcome of his two-fold lines of labour – construction and research.

Yet another kind of tribute was paid by The Spectator and reads as follows:

The people of the East have just the burning imagination which could extort a truth out of a mass of apparently disconnected facts, a habit of meditation without allowing the mind to dissipate itself and a power of persistence – it is something a little different from patience – such as hardly belong to any European...We do not know Professor Bose, but we venture to say...[n]othing would seem to him laborious in his enquiry, nothing insignificant, nothing painful, any more than it would seem to a true Sannyasi in the pursuit of his inquiry into the ultimate relation between his own spirits to that of the Divine.

It is amusing to find that, even during the closing years of the nineteenth century, some in the West were stereotyping an extraordinary and thoughtful Indian scientist as a yogi or sannyasi. Bose certainly did not have the personality of a yogi.

He keenly felt hurt if he was discriminated against and was frustrated by the constant struggles he had to wage. He often got violently swayed by the vicissitudes of life. He was a believer and had certain religious convictions, but was not seeking any spiritual ecstasy or fulfilment through scientific research. If he had any motives other than the purely academic, they were far from spiritual; he only wished to establish his country, India, in the scientific comity of the world.

The stir his lectures created in England radiated throughout the continent of Europe, and he soon received invitations to visit from prominent physicists in Paris and Berlin. In the first quarter of 1897, he demonstrated his apparatus before a gathering of the Société Française de Physique in Paris. The meeting was chaired by Marie Alfred Cornu, who expressed glowing admiration after Bose finished. Also in attendance were Gabriel Lippmann, who had become famous for inventions on colour photography, and Louis-Paul Cailletet, who was a pioneer in liquefying gas.

Lippmann and other prominent physicists were so impressed that they persuaded Bose to repeat his lecture at the University of Sorbonne. An honorary membership of the Société Française de Physique was soon conferred upon him.

On 5 March 1897, he spoke at a meeting of the Physikalische Gesellschaft in Berlin, which later published a summary of his work in German. Georg Hermann Quincke, who had attempted to duplicate Bose’s apparatus, came all the way from Heidelberg to hear him speak and extend an invitation to travel to his town in southwestern Germany. Bose also visited the University of Kiel before arriving in Heidelberg.

Bose’s apparatus and findings were rapidly popularised and included in contemporary science textbooks in Britain and the rest of Europe. In May 1897 the period of his deputation ended, and the Boses set sail homewards from the port city of Marseilles in the south of France.

Unsung Genius: A Life of Jagadish Chandra Bose

Excerpted with permission from Unsung Genius: A Life of Jagadish Chandra Bose, Kunal Ghosh, Aleph Book Company.