How Technology is Socially Constructed

Lecturing at IIT Madras earlier this week

I posed a question to a gathering of students and faculty at IIT Madras recently:

In the early part of the 19th century faced with a steep increase in demand for natural indigo dye, British and Indian landlords in Bengal and Bihar  ( Rabindranath Tagore’s grandfather Dwaraknath was one such landlord) sought to meet this demand by expanding the acreage growing indigo. 

The response in England and Germany to the same indigo demand was different. They  enlisted science to find a synthetic substitute which finally William Perkins did in 1856 by synthesising mauve aniline from coal tar. German scientists followed up on this and the synthetic dye industry was founded.

The advent of synthetic indigo made the price of indigo drop drastically.  All that the landowners of Bengal and Bihar could do was respond with ever more repressive measures. Among other measures, they influenced the British Raj government into enacting laws that made their tenants mandatorily grow indigo in at least 3/20th of the area leased to them. The peasants rose in revolt and a young lawyer recently returned from South Africa took up their cause. It was in negotiating a lower tax for these poor indigo farmers  Mahatma Gandhi’s first came to national prominence.

The trajectory that the German synthetic indigo took was different. In attempting to synthesise indigo they unravelled the benzene ring and founded the science of organic chemistry. In trying to reduce the cost of production they invented the unit processes of chemical engineering. Both of these plus the demand for chemistry graduates that their endeavours created stood the Germans in good stead when one of the dyes they experimented with was found to have bactericidal properties which lead to the founding in Germany of another giant industry- pharmaceutucals.

The question I posed to the IIT audience was this- why did India and Germany take these two different  trajectories faced with the same indigo demand issue?

  1. #1 by Ramakrishnan S

    I am not sure if my facts are correct, but UK and Germany may have reached a saturation point in their ability to or available land to grow Indigo, hence the need to look at alternatives. However, with large tracts of land available in India, the first reaction would be to grow more!

  2. #2 by Madhavan PK

    I guess the difference is the feudal mindset plus the lack of a scientific temper. The English and the Germans of the Industrialisation era had the scientific, innovative and entrepreneurial spirit in abundant measure. History would surely repeat itself if we dont innovate and constantly upgrading our skills. The playing field would be changed like it did for typewriters, hockey and et al.

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