Indian Science Since The Raj

The work of Indian scientists was suppressed in the past, says Gurbir Singh, recalling their forgotten achievements


5/11/2018 6:43:38 PM
written By : By Anjana Parikh Print

A cybersecurity consultant by profession, Gurbir Singh describes himself as a “part-time writer”.

In his recently launched book, The Indian Space Programme, the Manchester-based writer talks about India’s tradition in science which goes back to the Indus Valley Civilisation. The book published in October 2017 is available on for the first time. 

Born in Punjab, India, Singh, who went to the UK as a child in 1966, has been interested in space science and astronomy since his childhood.

Speaking exclusively to India Se, Singh said: “Just 10 years after India’s independence, Sputnik was launched by the Soviet Union and began the space race.

“In 1963 India launched a rocket from the Indian soil into space and began her space programme. I wanted to learn how India progressed in her space programme and who were the key participants,” he said.

His quest for knowledge led to questions such as what were the main challenges India faced in the space programme and what were the successes and failures. He searched for answers to these queries in books and, when he couldn’t find any, “I wrote one.”

The book was completed in six years. Singh made three trips to India for his research work.

In his book, he harks back to the arrival of the Europeans in India which coincided with the scientific renaissance in Europe. 

“The tools technology and processes of the industrial revolution were first brought to India by the soldiers and merchants of the East India Company. The work of Indian scientists in India was largely suppressed unless it contributed to the British pursuit of profit. A few Indian scientists did, however, contribute to fundamental scientific knowledge. Satyendra Nath Bose invented a new branch of mathematics and worked alongside Albert Einstein and contributed to the discovery of a new form of matter.  Srinivasa Ramanujan, a highly gifted mathematician, made some profound mathematical discoveries which continue to help scientists today. Jagadish Chandra Bose demonstrated the phenomenon of radio transmission in India in 1895 well before Marconi did in Europe,” said Singh, the founder of

In his book, he also mentions the fact that Tipu Sultan used rockets for war in the 1780s. According to Singh, in the late 18th century, the rulers of the Mysore empire — Hyder Ali and later his son,Tipu Sultan—developed rockets as weapons against British expansion.

“Following initial successes, Tipu Sultan was killed in the battle of Srirangapatna in 1799. Some of these rockets were then taken to Britain. Their design and potency strengthened the British navy. These rockets were then used in Europe and the 1812 war with America. It can be argued that the origins of the rockets that launched Sputnik and Gagarin can be traced back to these rockets from 18th century India,” said Singh.

Another interesting fact mentioned in the book is the devastating earthquake that shook Baluchistan in 1935. Later, this prompted the scientists to test the potential for using rockets as a means of transport to address an emergency. 

During the launch of the book, Singh said that, in chapter 5, one will find a mention of Stephen Smith, an Anglo-Indian scientist who demonstrated the use of rockets to transport basic items including toothpaste and matches.

“Liquid oxygen was successfully used a rocket fuel in 1926. Soon after, amateur rocket groups sprung up around the world including in Manchester. One of the popular uses for rockets then was for delivery of mail or rocket mail. Rocket mail is still a popular collector’s item amongst philatelists.  It was while researching the work of philatelists that I came across covers of Stephen Smith in India,” said Singh, adding, “On 29 June 1935, in what became a record-making flight, Smith safely transported livestock, a small cock and a hen, about a kilometre across a river.”

Singh claimed that Tashi Namgyal, the then King of Sikkim, assisted Smith with his rocket mail experiments during the 1930s.

The author tried to trace Smith’s daughter and his great granddaughter who now live in London, “but they expressed no interest in their family history”.

“I wanted to see if Princess Hope Leezum Namgyal, the grand-daughter of Tashi Namgyal, could help me access her grandfather’s archives. I spoke to her on the phone during my time in Sikkim but did not meet her. She indicated that there was no archive,” said Singh.

Another important aspect of the book is the information about Thumba in Kerala which was used to launch the first Indian rocket into space. According to the writer, the village “by chance” happens to lie directly under a natural phenomenon called the Equatorial Electro Jet (EEJ). “By launching rockets from Thumba, scientists could investigate the EEJ directly overhead. The first rocket launched from Thumba on 23 November 1963 was a two-stage American rocket called Nike-Apache.,” he added.

However, after his intensive research work, Singh is of the opinion that India will not be No 1 in space programmes nor is it “trying to be one”. “It lacks the budget of the larger economies to achieve that. India has always collaborated with USSR/Russia, USA, France and Israel. It has joint projects currently underway with all these countries. There has been some talk of collaborating in space with China and Pakistan but nothing substantial has materialised. In the next decade collaborative projects here, although unlikely, have a more interesting potential,” he said.

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