Jagadish Chandra Bose: The Reluctant Physicist

Jagadish Chandra Bose, a pioneering Indian physicist, delivered a significant lecture at the British Association meeting in 1896. Despite not being an orator, Bose's impactful presentation, highlighting his achievements in the study of electric waves despite British restrictions, garnered applause and sympathy, making him an instant celebrity and marking a pivotal moment in the history of wireless communication.
Jagadish Chandra Bose

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March 09, 2024 02:09 EDT

Bose was at the impressive red brick and terracotta Gothic style Victoria Building of the University College in Liverpool to give a lecture at a meeting of the British Association. As he stood in front of the commanding structure of the college, he was acutely conscious of the responsibility with which he had been entrusted. It was not as much about his scientific work as it was about impressing upon the British the need to sensitise their administrators in India to the problems of the Indian education system, especially advanced science learning. This was because of the indifference and contempt the officials had for the Indian students’ intelligence and ability. Section A of the British Association dedicated to Mathematical and Physical Science met at the Physics Theatre of the University College on the morning of 21 September 1896. The meeting was presided over by Section President J.J. Thomson, who went on to discover the “electron” and win the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1906. He also wrote the foreword to Bose’s Collected Physical Papers two decades later.

The first speaker of the day was Lord Kelvin. Bose was meeting him for the first time. Also present was Oliver Lodge, who had coined the term “coherer” and whose Little Book on the experiments with Hertzian waves had been a manual for Bose and many other early researchers of electric rays. William Preece, the Chief Engineer of the British General Post Office, who had lately taken up promoting Marconi in a big way, was present too. Bose was the fourth speaker. His topic was—On a Complete Apparatus for the Study of the Properties of Electric Waves.

Abala, Bose’s wife, sat in the visitors’ gallery with a pounding heart. She knew that for her husband it was a war against India’s adversaries, against the mindset that had pegged India into stagnation and even decline. A war that he had to win. The “regular applause,” she said later, assured her that he had indeed won.


Bose was not an orator. Nor did he care to be one. He walked slowly to the edge of the podium, stood very still with his left hand behind him, and looked at the audience for half a minute. “Ladies and Gentlemen,” he began softly and then plunged into his subject. Coming straight to the point, he said that inadequate facilities for research in India made it exceedingly difficult to acquire the necessary apparatus. “The simplified apparatus with which many of the properties of electromagnetic radiation may be studied is here exhibited. This apparatus which I brought from India is a replica of the apparatus made by Messrs Elliott Brothers in the UK.” The apparatus was similar to what he had used at the Town Hall in Calcutta. There was one significant addition, however. “The receiver is provided with a collecting funnel,” he explained. “The funnel has two hinged side-doors, by which its area—and therefore the amount of radiation collected—may be varied.”

Bose’s receiver arrangements show that the receiving antenna was what came to be known as a Pyramidal Electromagnetic Horn. Decades later the dishes for satellite TVs evolved from the same “horns” for “collecting” the electromagnetic signals. At the British Association meeting that day, whenever the galvanometer detected any radiation, a small mirror attached to the galvanometer’s magnetic needle deflected a light beam that swept across the lecture hall. And every time there was a sweep, there was applause. It was not the first time something like this had been demonstrated. Lodge had shown almost everything two years ago, but the compactness of Bose’s apparatus and the flawless manner in which he had conducted the demonstration had impressed everyone. He had made a fully scripted and much-rehearsed affair look natural and spontaneous. Bose became an instant celebrity.

He had played the psychological card well. To see a brown-skinned Indian dressed immaculately in a black suit, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Lord Kelvin and speaking in English was unusual. Bose lost no opportunity to declare that he had achieved all this despite the fact that the British rulers had denied him what he deserved. It generated much sympathy for him.

The event was a great success and earned Bose the kind of response he had hoped for. What was unexpected though was the sight of an elderly Lord Kelvin limping towards the upper gallery immediately after the lecture and personally congratulating a shy and startled Abala, the only non-white woman in the audience.

When a journalist later asked Bose if he had been nervous before the British Association meeting, his reply was, “Just a little, in the beginning. It has not often fallen upon me to address such a critical audience. But I was encouraged by the kind manner in which the paper was received.”


The discussions on Bose’s paper began the next day. Lodge opened the debate by exhibiting his own apparatus for studying electric waves. He believed that his radiator, like that of Prof Bose, was a sphere and that the oscillation of electric charges on spherical conductors could account for the production of X-rays.

Towards the end of the discussion, William Preece, a patron of Marconi, announced that a certain Signor Marconi had described to him experiments in which he had used Hertzian waves to transmit signals over a great distance and that he was presently conducting experiments in London and on Salisbury Plain. Like Major C Penrose of the War Office earlier, Preece too had found Marconi’s apparatus crude. This was the first time Bose heard of Marconi.

The British Association meeting was epochal in a sense. Bose’s millimetre waves had been demonstrated to the western world as a means for telegraphy without wires, or simply, “wireless communication,” for the first time. A hundred years later, the world picked up the cues and again used millimetre waves for high-speed wireless and gave it a fancy name—5G.

[Niyogi Books has given Fair Observer permission to publish this excerpt from Jagadish Chandra Bose: The Reluctant Physicist, Sudipto Das, Niyogi Books, 2024.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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