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Crystal radio set

The eccentric engineer: Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose

Image credit: EMFA16 | Dreamstime

Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose was a visionary whose ideas led to such achievements as ‘crystal’ radio sets and the demonstration of electrical nature of plant responses.

It is often the fate of the engineer to come up with an idea too soon - either before it’s needed or simply before anyone can make sense of it. Rarely has this been done in such diverse fields as those chosen by Jagadish Chandra Bose.

Born in 1858 into a well-to-do family in British India, Bose should have attended the English college, but instead was sent to the local Hindi school so that he should know his own language and people. Here he mixed not with the British-Indian elite but the sons of servants and dalits and it was this that he later credited with inspiring his own work: “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.”

Bose proved to be a brilliant pupil and having moved on to the English-language St Xavier’s College in Calcutta, he looked to finish his education in Britain. In London, his chosen subject of medicine proved too taxing after several bouts of malaria. His rescue came in the form of scholarship to Christ’s College Cambridge where he took the natural sciences tripos and fell into the circle of some of the greatest scientists of the day.

Bose left Cambridge with an excellent degree, but many in British India still believed an Indian wouldn’t have the ability to pursue a career in pure science or engineering. Fortunately, the Viceroy, Lord Ripon, proved more enlightened and with his recommendation Bose was made a professor of physics at the Presidency College, Calcutta. The college staff, unhappy with having a ‘local’ imposed on them, arranged for him to only receive a third of the salary of a European professor. In response, Bose refused to take any salary for three years, in which time he proved himself so valuable to the college that they were forced to pay him the full amount due.

What had interested Bose was the work of Heinrich Hertz describing electromagnetic waves. He developed and built his own wave-generating equipment to create 5mm microwaves, and at a public lecture in 1895 showed that such waves could be transmitted through a solid wall to a detector, at least as early as Marconi’s first demonstrations in Europe. This quickly brought him to the attention of European scientists, and his plans for a wave detector known as a ‘self-​recovering coherer’ were published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society in 1899 and later used, without credit, by Marconi himself for his famous trans-Atlantic broadcast in 1901. Not that this bothered Bose. Despite the explosion of interest in radio he had no desire to profit from his discoveries and doggedly refused to patent them.

Yet it was another type of wave detector that would make Bose’s name and usher in a whole new industry. Using a lead sulphide crystal, he developed a semiconductor junction to detect radio waves. This formed the basis of the early ‘crystal’ radio sets and marked the first theoretical outline of what would become known decades later as n- and p-type semiconductors.

Again, Bose took absolutely no interest in the commercial side of his discoveries and instead moved on to a different area of study, leaving radio engineers with 60 years in which to catch up with him. Bose’s new interest was even more ahead of its time, studying the physiology of plants. While his work on radio earned him the fellowship of the Royal Society and a knighthood, his suggestion that plants could respond to their environment, feel distress, and signal to each other was met with derision. To prove his point, he invented the magnetic crescograph, a balance so sensitive that it could measure the tiny movement of plants and magnify them 10 million times. Using this, he demonstrated the electrical nature of plant responses, which were then thought to be chemical in nature.

Sadly for Bose, this work was perhaps 100 years ahead of its time and even his fellow Indian scientist CV Raman referred to it as ‘mumbo jumbo’. Only in the 21st century has research begun to show that plants really can move in response to stimuli, communicate with each other when attacked by pests, and even ‘scream’ when injured.

Not that this seemed to bother Bose, any more so than Marconi receiving the Nobel prize without him. In 1917 he set up the Bose Institute in Kolkata where he remained director for the 20 years up to his death. As he said at its inauguration: “It is not for man to complain of circumstances, but bravely to accept, to confront and to dominate them; and we belong to that race which has accomplished great things with simple means...”

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